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Tasting A Rich Kentucky

A Taste of Kentucky is a reminder of the first whiff of air after crossing south over the Ohio River, then heading east, south, or west. It’s the time of the late-winter Kentucky cardinal and early robin scout, the stirring of yellow bells, remembrances of old ham and beaten biscuits, dreams of Derby Pie when spring rolls around again.

A yearlong valentine!

John and Sherry Hassman, owners of A Taste of Kentucky, have been marketing a quarter of a century of “Gifts and Goods With A Distinctive Kentucky Flavor.” Their shelves spill over with items celebrating the unique—crafts rooted in the richness of Bluegrass soil, foods arising from kitchens where the cooks have an abiding sense of place.

John and Sherry left their native homes in Dayton, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois, to build their ultimate careers in Kentucky. They’re married to more than just each other. They are bonded to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

“Why do you love Kentucky so much?” I ask at their Mall St. Matthews outlet in Louisville.

“Kentucky is beautiful, physically beautiful with so much diversity…and it’s the people—our friends,” says John with the perpetual smile.

That sense of beauty and diversity appears throughout the Hassman stores in Louisville and Middletown, where there are candies, framed pictures, and music boxes. Of course, the main song is My Old Kentucky Home.

At Derby time, the bestseller is Kern’s Derby Pie. Thousands and thousands of the copyrighted creation are shipped all over the United States and to many foreign countries.

“Talk Derby To Me” is a line of copyrighted party items at A Taste of Kentucky. John and Sherry thrive on laughter and good cheer. They’ve taken an idea and wrapped it by the basketful. They don’t sit around and wait for customers. “You have to develop your business. You can’t wait for the phone to ring.”

The Hassmans have a staff of 12 to 18, up to 65 at holiday time. At A Taste of Kentucky there’s an expectation of helping to underscore and spread the word about what’s good about the Commonwealth. For much too long the Al Capp syndrome—depicting us all as hillbillies as in his Lil’ Abner cartoon strip—has dominated the perception of this land that has produced Abraham Lincoln and thousands and thousands of unsung heroes.

A Taste of Kentucky is not the only inspired gift shop business from the Big Sandy to the Mississippi. There are many others, often based in deep family tradition, where the owners and founders work hard and strive to fill a need.

If there can be natives of Chicago, Illinois, and Dayton, Ohio, who have seen and understood the beauty and the potential of Kentucky, there must be many native Kentuckians who’ve discovered a reason for building upon a foundation of true value, decency, and respect.

And it’s not just gift and craft shops. The idea of A Taste of Kentucky should spread to become the essence of better schools, more ethical professional practices, more dedicated religious organizations, more thoughtful dialogue from grassroots to top imaginative leadership. Improved politics, too. More Abe Lincolns and Henry Clays.

The story of success begins right where we are, and it might be nothing more than a better read book, a more sensitively written patch for the whole cloth. Maybe it’ll be a more carefully listened to piece of music, or a new ensemble of composers for a new Commonwealth of Kentucky. It takes courage to fly above the birds of a feather. It requires a new personal resolve to always try to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

As treasured drama coach Wally Briggs used to say at the University of Kentucky’s Guignol Theatre, “You’ve got it—now build on it!”

You just never can tell, A Taste of Kentucky could become “A Feast of Kentucky.”

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