Some of the finest cooks in USA hail from Knox County, Kentucky. With a few notable exceptions they are mainly old granny women living up hollers and putting out Eastern Kentucky classics like chili buns, soup beans, corn bread, greasy beans, stack cakes, fried corn, baked hams, chicken and dumplings and dozens of other Appalachian classics.
On a recent journey through the Cumberland Highlands I saw a small ad in the Barbourville Mountain Advocate newspaper for a food event called ‘A Taste Of Knox County’
I immediately envisioned groaning boards stacked to the rafters with the aforementioned favorites, all trotted out piping hot and served by elderly women who grew up on farms learning the ancient cooking arts from forebears who migrated to Kentucky in the 19th century.
The event was not a full-bore disaster but it was missing many elements of a successful Knox County food party.
My grandmother Nellie Sullivan was a professional chef; my mother had a long career in real estate but easily could’ve earned a good living as a cook, and my dad, to this day, is one of the best cooks of country-style food I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
I grew up in Knox County eating like a king. I know the foodways of Knox County and ‘A Taste Of Knox County’ did little to whet my appetite for the cuisine of the region.
There were no soup beans. Soup beans are the quintessential dish of Eastern Kentucky and any food party celebrating the region simply must have a crock pot filled to the brim with long-simmered pintos sharing space with a big meaty ham bone.
There were no chicken and dumplings. On a trip to Kentucky last Fall I was fortunate to time my arrival with Keck Baptist Church’s homecoming. The church is in Knox County and there were roughly a dozen iterations of chicken and dumplings, each more delicious than the last.
There were no chili buns. Chili buns, along with fried baloney, are the ultimate quick dinner favorite of Eastern Kentuckians. Every rural quick mart sells them, every cafe and diner sells them and every housewife in the region has a closely guarded recipe.
You can not have a party titled ‘A Taste of Knox County’ and not have chili buns.
I meandered through the service line at the affair and built a plate of food. Nothing was impressive. Kentucky Biscuit Company put out a container of pulled pork that had gone stone cold, as in refrigerator cold. The desserts ended up being the best option; a peanut butter fudge was absolutely delicious while an apple cake showed early promise before it was driven off the rails by the presence of Allspice.
This is article number 500 on Chowpapi