Guests at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, had grown tired of ham and eggs. During the Jazz Age, the “Roaring Twenties,” a crowd of over 1,200 for the dinner dance at the new hotel at the corner Fourth and Broad was common.
Financed by Louisville businessman J. Graham Brown to the tune of $4 million, the hotel opened its doors on October 25, 1923. David Lloyd George, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, was the first person to sign the guest register. Actress and singer Lily Pons kept a lion cub in her suite. Al Jolson got into the fight in the hotel’s English Grill and hid the results with makeup. Future actor Victor Mature operated the hotel elevator.
The Brown quickly became the social and business center of Louisville. When the Ohio River flooded Louisville in 1937, nearly 1,000 people took refuge in the hotel and were stranded there for 10 days. Water was so deep in the hotel lobby that boats rowed through it. The bell captain caught a fish in the second floor lobby.
In 1926, Chef Fred Schmidt had an epiphany in the Brown Hotel kitchen. As a counterpoint to the oft-served ham and eggs, he created an open-faced sandwich that would become not only a trademark for Louisville but for the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. It was a hefty sandwich, a perfect antidote to a night of partying.
Maybe Chef Schmidt took as his inspiration the traditional Welsh rarebit, or maybe he just creatively employed ingredients readily at hand in the hotel kitchen in the middle of the night: toasted bread, turkey, flour, butter, milk, cheese, and bacon.
Schmidt’s filling sandwich came to be known as the Kentucky Hot Brown. On top of the toast and turkey, he poured a Mornay sauce—a classic béchamel to which cheese is added. With a few strips of Kentucky bacon, he baked the sandwich and then ran it under a broiler, “browning” it slightly, so that the name of the sandwich echoed not only the hotel’s name but the cooking technique as well.
At the same time, Schmidt concocted a Cold Brown, but it died a quick culinary death. The Hot Brown survives, though, at a current price of $16 at J. Graham’s in the Brown Hotel and for a bit less at many restaurants across Kentucky. It is not a sandwich to be eaten with the hands. Its messy goodness requires knife, fork, and even spoon—the whole arsenal of table tools.
This Hot Brown recipe is a variation shared with me years ago by my good friend the late John Egerton, a brilliant scholar of Southern cuisine and a native of Cadiz, Kentucky.
Kentucky Hot Brown
Make a basic white sauce (by melting four tablespoons of butter in a saucepan and blending in four tablespoons of flour, stirring over low heat until the mixture becomes a smooth paste; add two cups of milk or cream and a teaspoon of salt, and continue stirring until the sauce thickens) and add to it a cup of grated cheddar cheese. Season it with sprinklings of black and cayenne peppers. Toast four to eight slices of commercial bread or homemade white bread—one or two for each person to be served. Lay the toast pieces in a large, shallow baking dish or other suitable container. Top each piece with a thin slice of turkey, a generous spreading of the sauce, a slice of country ham or pieces of cooked bacon, a large slice of fresh tomato, more cheese sauce to cover it all, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese or paprika (or both). Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, then turn up to broil just long enough to make the sandwiches bubbling hot and golden brown on top.
Fred Sauceman’s latest book, Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia, will be published in March by Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia.