1 of 7
A bold red sauce provides richness to Flexner's recipe for barbecued turkey
2 of 7
Our heirloom Thanksgiving was created with recipes from Marion Flexner's 1949 cookbook, Out of Kentucky Kitchens
3 of 7
Dates in cheese jackets
4 of 7
The red gravy, which Flexner labels a barbecue sauce, is used to baste the holiday turkey
5 of 7
Grandmother Flexner's green beans
6 of 7
7 of 7
Pendennis Club champagne punch
“For Kentuckians have always loved to entertain and have always been overly fond of good ‘vittals.’ ”— Marion W. Flexner, Out of Kentucky Kitchens
I am surrounded by yellowed newspaper clippings, some so thin they feel as if they will crumble at the slightest touch. They contain dozens of articles, each stamped with the name and date of publications such as The Courier-Journal and The New York Times. There are magazine articles, too: antique pages of Vogue, Gourmet and Woman’s Day held precariously together by browned tape. The common thread in each clipping? Marion W. Flexner, author of Out of Kentucky Kitchens.
Prior to sitting among this treasure trove of information about her life, I already had felt a bond with Marion. Having read Out of Kentucky Kitchens cover to cover, I had been trying my hand at her recipes in an effort to prepare the perfect Kentucky Thanksgiving meal.
As I shuffled through the tattered articles, I began to piece together a vibrant picture of this colorful character in Kentucky’s history. Best known as a cookbook author, Marion Flexner (née Weil) also was a skilled journalist and biographer, a generous entertainer, and an authority in the kitchen. She was Kentucky’s Julia Child, the Martha Stewart of her time.
Born in Alabama in 1900, Marion grew up in Montgomery and learned her way around the kitchen while standing at the heels of Aunt Fanny, her grandfather’s cook. She considered Aunt Fanny’s recipes her greatest treasure and paid tribute to them in her first cookbook, Dixie Dishes. Out of Kentucky Kitchens followed soon after, published in 1949 to much fanfare and praise. The book is a blend of Marion’s personal, tried-and-true recipes and those she collected over the years from friends and Southern institutions such as the Pendennis Club.
In 1922, Marion moved to Kentucky and married Dr. Morris Flexner. The couple established themselves as vital players in the Louisville social scene, and their reputation for entertaining was enviable. They had adventurous spirits and an insatiable love for travel, which, I found as I continued further down the trail of newspaper articles, became more and more of a theme and a purpose (Marion opened a Louisville travel agency in 1957). Several articles about a long summer spent exploring Europe were published, penned by Marion with vibrant color photos courtesy of Morris. Marion was enamored with the idea of attending Le Cordon Bleu and spent a weekend in Paris learning as much as she could during her 48-hour stint at the renowned cooking school. These lessons and experiences all played a part in the development of her culinary star, and there are several references to French cuisine or techniques tucked in the chapters of Out of Kentucky Kitchens.
As I thumbed the pages of Marion’s cookbook, it was not difficult to piece together traditional elements of a proper Thanksgiving meal. In her chapter dedicated to all things poultry, Marion offers us her recipe for barbecued turkey, where she bastes a slow-roasted bird with a thick tomato sauce enhanced with celery leaves, paprika, pimentos and green pepper. Dubbed a barbecue sauce, this red gravy eschews the traditional brown sort, giving a lovely touch of acid and richness to the succulent meat.
Not wanting to miss out on gravy at Thanksgiving, I was excited to try my hand at the recipe for Grandmother Flexner’s green beans with gravy. Fresh beans are cooked slowly in a bath of onions, which have been sautéed until brown in butter and flour. Water, salt, pepper and a generous pinch of sugar are added to the mix, resulting in a dish of tender beans in a light gravy, all made in one pan—a simple and smart technique I am anxious to apply to other vegetables.
Grandmother Flexner’s beans paired perfectly with Marion’s go-to recipe for poultry dressing—a roughly chopped combination of onions, celery stalks and leaves and plenty of seasonings, including thyme, sage and parsley. Thick slices of bread are moistened with chicken broth and massaged until saturated and unified. The herbal notes are powerful in the dressing, the bite of freshness a welcome repose from the richness of the beans and turkey.
My favorite find in Out of Kentucky Kitchens was the recipe for Kentucky Sally Lunn bread, which manages to be densely cake-like and ethereally light at the same time. I made only a slight adjustment to my Sally Lunn bread, sprinkling kosher salt over top of the dough just before baking. The touch of salt offers a lovely crunch to the sweetly addictive bread.
The small addition of salt to the Sally Lunn bread was one of only a handful of minor adjustments required as I cooked my way through this Kentucky tome. Most of the techniques and general instructions hold as true today as they did in 1949, but some consideration should be made for the modern appliances and efficiencies of today. For example, Marion recommends cooking a turkey of 10 pounds or more for 25 to 30 minutes per pound, a five-hour total cooking time that would have left my 12-pound bird as tough and as black as a lump of coal. The scarce minor adjustments are a testament to the timelessness of Marion’s creations.
As I carefully placed the delicate newspaper clippings of Marion’s past back into their folder, I was filled with a deep sense of thankfulness for her and the generous way she shared her expertise and love of Kentucky cuisine with both locals and those from afar. By opening the doors to her Kentucky kitchen, Marion enabled experienced and inexperienced cooks alike the opportunity to understand and preserve the traditions of entertaining and cooking in the Bluegrass for generations to come.
Heirloom Thanksgiving Menu
Dates in Cheese Jackets
Grandmother Flexner’s Green Beans