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Kentucky Holiday Feasts

In 1843, Charles Dickens described a Christmas repast the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Roman times:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as that dull metrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Morley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

Upon its publication, the author of A Christmas Carol was promptly dubbed “the man who discovered Christmas,” and years later, with a few modifications here and there, the holidays still bear the Dickens imprint.

Bah humbug, indeed.

Known for their holiday festivities, Kentucky’s Holly Hill, Labrot & Graham, and Elmwood Inn share their secrets and recipes for a Dickens Christmas.

“The Cratchits feasted on roast goose, dressing or stuffing, gravy, applesauce, and Christmas pudding,” says Ouita Michel, owner and chef at Holly Hill Inn in Midway. “We still eat this meal almost in its entirety, just substituting roast turkey for the goose. Dressing is an old Kentucky standby, although we often make ours with cornbread. Gravy is practically an art form in this state. My own mother and grandmother always make giblet gravy with sliced hard-boiled eggs for roast turkey.

“Applesauce is traditionally made with June apples and served with pork in these parts, but any Kentucky family would almost always have a fruit dish of some kind–fried apples or baked apples, even ambrosia or another kind of fruit salad.”

According to Michel, the English Christmas pudding of Dickens’ era was a soft, steamed spice cake. “Here in Midway, our version is called Woodford Pudding and it is one of our most popular fall desserts.”

Adds David Larson, chef at Labrot & Graham Distillery in Versailles: “Everybody’s holiday tradition is just a bit different so we try to prepare things to showcase what Kentuckians eat and what they enjoy eating.”

One of the things Kentuckians really love to eat is pork, and Larson says it will be made “40,000 different ways” at his restaurant, including grilled with bourbon and served with a sage sauce. Other beloved and traditional regional victuals are salmon croquettes, the Kentucky Hot Brown, garlic cheese grits, corn pudding, and spoon bread.

“It is old-fashioned comfort food and people look forward to it.”

Although the restaurant’s menu will change daily during the six-week “Christmas at Labrot & Graham,” the edibles Kentucki-ans favor will be mainstays. One such dish is a casserole made from a sweet root vegetable known as the oyster plant, grown in Labrot & Graham gardens. Brunches run November 12 through December 21, and reservations are highly recommended.

Desserts will include traditional Kentucky favorites like homemade gingerbread with lemon sauce, pecan pound cake, and a Woodford Reserve Bourbon chocolate cake with caramel icing.

“It’s just good, Southern food.”

Good Southern food with roots in Dickens’ Victorian Christmas repasts. Food that has been modified over time to accommodate changing tastes and traditions.

“Our food traditions have changed as society has changed,” notes Michel. “We aren’t as rural as we once were. Fewer families are supporting themselves off the farm. More Kentuckians live in cities than ever before. Our population is aging and most families involve two working parents instead of one. Now, instead of a beaten biscuit roller on the front porch or in the kitchen we have prepackaged biscuits available along with yeast rolls and biscuits.

“But even with all these changes, many of the foods we eat during the holidays are right out of Dickens.

“Actually, many of the foods from ancient Rome carry on today in Kentucky dishes, but that is another subject and another story…”


Slow Cooked Fresh Pork Roast with Dijon and Chardonnay

1 fresh ham or pork shoulder

2 Tablespoons granulated garlic

2 Tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons kosher salt

2 cups Dijon mustard, preferably Grey Poupon

1 bottle chardonnay or Riesling (orange juice or apple
cider can be substituted)

2 generous sprigs rosemary

4 Tablespoons olive oil

This dish is best made in a large roasting pan with a close-fitting lid like a Dutch oven. The pan needs to be able to hold the roast.

Let the pork warm up a bit. Combine the salt, garlic, and pepper together and rub the mix onto the roast, coating the whole surface thoroughly. Heat the oil in the pan and brown the meat well on all sides, leaving the fat side up when finished.

Spread the surface of the roast with the mustard (really slather it on). Throw in the rosemary and add the whole bottle of wine. Put on the lid and roast in a 325° oven for about 2-1/2 to 3 hours depending on size. A meat thermometer should read 165° when properly cooked.

Place the roast onto a platter. Pour the juices out and skim the surface carefully to remove excess fat. Slice and serve with the au jus.

Serves approximately 12. This is particularly tasty with spoon bread.

–Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Bed & Breakfast

Woodford Reserve Bourbon Baked Apricots

4 cups drained canned apricot halves

1-1/2 cups crushed Ritz crackers

6 Tablespoons melted butter

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup bourbon

Soak apricots in bourbon for one hour and drain. In a buttered 8-inch-square casserole dish, layer apricots, cracker crumbs, and sugar. There should be enough for 2 layers. Drizzle with melted butter. Bake at 325° for 35 minutes. Serves 6.

–David Larson, Labrot & Graham

Bourbon Marinade

1 cup salad oil

1/4 cup bourbon

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Mix all ingredients together and use as a marinade for chicken or pork or, for the holidays, as a turkey baste. It has a wonderful flavor and helps brown up the meat.

–David Larson, Labrot & Graham

Country Ham Spread

1/4 pound thinly sliced country ham (Kentucky country
ham or a Smithfield ham)

2 Tablespoons mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard

Chop the ham in a food processor and pour into a small bowl. Add mayonnaise and mustard and stir until well-blended. Place a small spoonful of the mixture in the center of an angel biscuit. Makes enough spread for about two dozen small angel biscuits.

–Bruce Richardson, Elmwood Inn

Angels on Horseback

A delicious, traditional English savory dish recommended by English tea author Jane Pettigrew.

1 dozen oysters

2 large lemons

6 slices of bacon

Cayenne pepper

Fresh ground black pepper

Toast points


To make toast points: trim the crusts from white bread, cut each slice into 2 triangles, dredge in melted butter, and lightly toast in the oven at 250°.

Juice 2 large lemons. Dip each oyster in lemon juice and sprinkle with cayenne and black pepper. Cut the bacon slices in half lengthwise. Wrap a piece of bacon around each oyster and place on a baking sheet. (A cocktail stick may be needed to hold the bacon in place.) Place the baking sheet under a broiler and cook until the bacon is crisp. Do not overcook because the oysters may become tough.

Prepare a serving platter with fresh red-leaf lettuce leaves. Lay the cooked oysters on toast points and arrange on the platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and use cocktail sticks for serving. Serve while warm. Makes 12 appetizers.

–Bruce Richardson, Elmwood Inn


Elmwood Inn

205 East Fourth Street

Perryville, KY 40468

(800) 765-2139 or (859) 332-2400



Holly Hill Inn

426 North Winter Street

Midway, KY 40307

(859) 846-4732


Labrot & Graham Distillery

7855 McCracken Pike

Versailles, KY 40383

Distillery tours: (859) 879-1812

Brunch reservations: (859) 268-9835

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While on the subject of Charles Dickens, the holidays, and food traditions, it seems fitting to mention Elmwood Inn in Perryville, a historic manor built originally in 1842, just a year before A Christmas Carol was published. Nothing short of a harmonious blend of English elegance and Kentucky hospitality, the tearoom espouses the traditions across the pond while indulging the tastes of the Bluegrass.

Country Ham Spread, made with Kentucky country ham; Angels on Horseback that features oysters just as Dickens did in his Christmas bounty; Cranberry Scones, a seasonal must; and White Fruit Cake, made several weeks in advance and allowed to soak slowly in brandy while aging–these are some of the delicacies in the cornucopia of treats for the inn’s “A Proper Holiday Afternoon Tea.”

The theme of this year’s holiday tea is angels, an appropriate choice since there are more than 100 celestial images scattered throughout the inn, including porcelain angels found in Vienna and wooden angel bands from Bavaria. In keeping with the theme, angel biscuits and angel sugar cookies will be served in addition to the foodstuffs mentioned above, and all will be accompanied by an Orange and Spice tea, a blend of black China tea, cinnamon sticks, orange peel, and sweet cloves.

Elmwood Inn’s teas are offered Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The holiday tea runs November 29 through December 23 and books up early, but you can visit throughout the year as the menu and theme change monthly.

Holiday Health Tips

Ouita Michel recommends using low-fat versions of cream cheese, ricotta cheese, sour cream, and whipped cream in any holiday recipes, and serving wine punch instead of hard alcohol.

“Just add some exotic fruit juice and sparkling water to your wine for a nice holiday drink that is better for you and less expensive to provide for guests.”

You can also save calories on the higher-fat items like fast food, chips, candy, etc., so that you can indulge in the specialties of the season like homemade cookies.

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