Kentucky seems to be a bit of an outlier as far as “Southern” food is concerned. With its location at the intersection of the Midwest and the South, its cuisine incorporates the pioneer Midwestern tradition of fudge and sticky puddings, the Appalachian wilderness vibe of hickory nuts, sorghum, cushaws and pawpaws, and Southern-sticky mint juleps and May Day pie–all with a splash of bourbon for good measure. As a culinary anthropologist whose food writing has appeared in Southern Living, Serious Eats and the forthcoming Edible New Orleans, Baird knows her stuff. It’s not just about recipes, but about the connection between culture and cuisine.
Baird’s cookbook is engaging and entertaining, with anecdotes and interviews with many of Kentucky’s culinary heroes (like John Brittain, who owns a nut tree nursery specializing in the native hickory nut, and Walter Lupe, the grandson of the founders of Kern’s Kitchen, who trademarked the famous Derby Pie®). It’s divided into five parts: Fruits and Nuts, Derby Favorites, Chocolate and Caramel, Celebration Sweets and Confections and Candies. We learn a great deal of the culture and history of this interesting state along the way. Baird discusses how apple butter was made from the dried apples the Appalachians prepared, and how the community of Kentucky Shakers contributed so much to the culture of sustainability (despite its own celibacy). The Shaker Lemon Pie recipe, like the famous Shaker furniture, is a marvel in its simplicity. All the recipes are entrancing: what about the Christmas desserts of Black Walnut Fudge (a Kentucky thing for sure), or Jam Cake? It’s filled with all kinds of spices and blackberry jam and, of course, bourbon! We learn about famous Southern sodas, including Kentucky’s own Ale-8-One, a ginger ale with a kick; who knew that Coca-Cola wasn’t the only fizzy sweet beverage to come out of the South? Recipes for the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky’s signature event, are also worth perusing: the Kentucky Butter Cake, buttered-up with a glaze that makes it look like a giant Krispy-Kreme doughnut balanced precariously on a Bundt cake, is decadent. There are even a couple of New Orleans-ish recipes, like Woodford pudding and Brandy Milk Punch. According to Baird, soaked bread recipes were a staple in Kentucky as early as the beginning of the 19th century.
Kentucky Sweets affords a lovely glimpse into a culture that’s Southern, yet ruggedly American. Daniel Boone coexists happily with ladies in flowery hats sipping mint juleps. We can learn a great deal about one state’s cuisine through its desserts and sweets-and at the same time, experience its unique culture.