Search For:

Share This

Classic Kentucky cookbooks preserve the past and feed the future 

“Never strive to have a great variety of made dishes on your table when you have but few to eat with you: perhaps half of them would not be tasted; it of course would only be a superfluous waste.” 

With these cautioning words, Mrs. Lettice Bryan presents her 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, considered one of the earliest published regional cookbooks. It’s fascinating glimpse into the culinary history of the Bluegrass state—just one of many now-classic works that have shaped food culture in Kentucky. 

Early beginnings 

Bryan weighs in not only on cooking, but on how to make beverages such as gooseberry wine; remedies like tobacco juice for snake bite; cosmetics including black hair dye derived from mutton suet; and a cement for broken glass and china made with egg white and unslaked lime. Not merely a collection of recipes, the book is a snapshot of the blending of the American Indian, European and African cultures of the American South and a reflection of life on the American frontier in the years leading up to the Civil War. 

Bryan offers up 1,300 recipes— or receipts as these were typically called in Bryan’s time—everything from roasted snipe to whortleberry tarts. What readers won’t find? Step by step instructions. In the preface, the book’s publisher notes that “repetitions of such directions should be contained in the memory, as they not only swell a work unnecessarily, but make the receipts lengthy, and consequently irksome to look over.” Readers were left to intuit cooking times—and in some cases specific ingredient amounts—based on their resources and methodology. 

In 1906, Miss Atholene Peyton published The Peytonia Cook Book, the first Kentucky cookbook written by an African American. Peyton, who was raised and educated in Louisville, dedicated her book to the Women’s Clubs of America, explaining in her Author’s Note: “The clubs and their women make the world—it is to them I dedicate this book, that the many may be reached.” 

By now cookbooks weren’t leaving so much to the individual cook’s interpretation but providing special and level measurements and easy-to-follow directions—a format first established with the 1896 publication of the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook

Twentieth-century cooks could disregard Bryan’s admonishment that “directions should be remembered, that it may not be necessary to repeat it again and again in each receipt, as it is altogether superfluous.” Rather, Peyton bolstered the home cook’s confidence, promising “if the directions are followed, there must be success.” Both measurements and cooking times were clearly noted, as in Peyton’s recipe for chocolate. 

  • Chocolate. 
  • One pint of milk; 
  • One pint of cold water; 
  • Three tablespoons of grated cocoa; 

Boil 15 or 20 minutes in a double boiler. Sweeten to taste at the table; use whipped cream. 

Shaker Village, then and now 

The same year Lettice Bryan published The Kentucky Housewife, the Trustees Office was built at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg. More than a century later, in (what year?) this would become the home of the Trustees’ Table restaurant. Its first director, Elizabeth Kremer, is the subject of a new cookbook by Deirdre A. Scaggs and Evalina Kremer Settle entitled, Simplicity and Excellence: Elizabeth Kremer from Beaten Biscuits to Shaker Lemon Pie

The book combines the first-ever biography of Elizabeth Kremer with Kremer’s classic recipes that celebrated the simplicity of good, traditional Kentucky country cooking. Kremer is also considered one of the most influential forces behind the preservation of Kentucky’s culture through its cuisine. 

Under her tutelage, the Trustees’ Table, which featured Shaker-inspired dishes and traditional Southern fare served family style, transformed from a sandwich shop to the iconic destination dining experience that it is today. It was a feat Kremer pulled off at age 65, after taking a 27-year hiatus from work to raise her family. 

“She was a beloved figure in the region and known for her delicious fried chicken, Salsify Casserole and Shaker Lemon Pie,” says Shelby Jones, senior director of marketing at Shaker Village. 

All three items remain on the menu at the Trustees’ Table, with the Shaker Lemon Pie and fried chicken staples and the Salsify Casserole typically appearing during holidays like Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

Black history in Appalachia 

Most recently, Kentucky’s former Poet Laureate and O. Henry Prize-winning writer Crystal Wilkinson invites readers along on a culinary journey into the heart and hidden legacy of Black Appalachians. Part memoir, part cookbook, Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks shares nearly 40 family recipes rooted deep in the past, including perennial favorites from generation to generation like corn pudding, chicken and dumplings and Granny Christine’s Jam Cake. 

“One generation’s survival or struggle foods become the next generation’s comfort foods,” says Wilkinson. “The innovation employed by a new generation is what keeps the traditions going.” 

As an example, Wilkinson has retooled many of her grandmother’s recipes and the recipes from her generation to better align with the author’s desire for more health conscious cooking. 

“Because I don’t eat as much as my forebears, I don’t add meat to a pot of kale and mustard greens,” says Wilkinson, “But my recipe still yields a great tasting pot of greens that is reminiscent of the ones I had while I was growing up.” 

The name of the book came from an experience Wilkinson had while baking a jam cake. Feeling her late grandmother’s presence, Wilkinson—an expert cook in her own right—realized she was far from alone in her kitchen. As she stirred, measured and braised, Wilkinson sensed not just her grandmother but the presence of other generations of her family stirring, measuring and braising alongside her. 

“These are my kitchen ghosts, five generations of Black women who settled in Appalachia and made a life, a legacy and a cuisine,” she says. “I hope my children’s children continue these traditions well into the future.” 

Times and techniques may change, but classic Kentucky cookbooks speak to cooks throughout the ages and their shared experiences. 

Classic Kentucky recipes 

Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks by Crystal Wilkinson 

Gingerbread and Sauce 

“Why wait until the holidays to enjoy gingerbread,” says Wilkinson. “This one is simple, quick and homey, with the right amount of spice and sweet to enjoy after any meal. Just as there was always bread on our table, there was also always dessert. My grandmother sometimes referred to this family favorite as ‘cake and sauce.’ It is a soft, finely textured spiced cake, and the raisin sauce is spooned over for a delightful bite.” 

For the cake:

  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter, at room temperature 
  • 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) vegetable shortening, at room temperature 
  • 1 cup sugar 
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten 
  • ½ cup sorghum molasses 
  • 2 cups self-rising flour, sifted 
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger 
  • 1 cup just-boiled water 

For the sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch 
  • 1 cup sugar 
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter 
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

Make the cake: Place a rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch pan with cooking oil spray.  Combine the butter, shortening and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer. Beat on medium speed until smooth and well blended.  Stop to scrape down the bowl. Add the egg and sorghum, then beat on medium speed until thoroughly mixed.  Meanwhile, sift together the flour, cinnamon and ginger onto a sheet of wax or parchment paper. On low speed, add this to the mixer bowl, beating until no trace of flour remains. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, gradually pour in your hot water and beat until evenly incorporated. The batter will be thin. Pour into your prepared pan and bake on the middle rack for 30 to 35 minutes, until springy to the touch, nicely browned and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Make the sauce: While the gingerbread cools a bit (in its pan) on a wire rack, place the cornstarch in a small bowl. Measure out 2 cups of water, remove 2 tablespoons from the measured water and add it to the cornstarch, stirring with a fork until smooth to make a slurry.  Combine the remaining measured water with the sugar and butter in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cornstarch slurry and cook briefly until the mixture has slightly thickened. Remove from the heat. Stir in the vanilla and as many raisins as you like. 

To serve, cut the gingerbread into squares. Spoon warm sauce over each portion. Raisins to taste. Serves 18 to 20; makes one 9 x 13-inch cake.

Indian Creek Chili 

“This is a mild chili, similar to the one I grew up with,” says Wilkinson. “At my house, we now top it with a scoop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese and serve it with saltines on the side. It makes a great meal on its own, or you can serve it with grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwiches on the side. The addition of spaghetti—typical in this region—stretches it to feed a large family.”

  • 2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey 
  • 1 large onion, chopped 
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder 
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder 
  • Crushed red pepper flakes 
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their juices, or 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes 
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained 
  • 46 ounces tomato juice (5 ¾ cups) 
  • Table salt 
  • 7 ounces dried spaghetti 
  • Sour cream, for serving 
  • Shredded cheddar cheese, for serving 

Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Working in batches as needed, brown the ground meat just until no trace of pink remains, stirring often. If there is a lot of rendered fat, drain that off. Move the meat to one side of the pot and add the onion. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until it has softened, then stir in the chili powder, garlic powder and a small pinch of red pepper flakes into the meat. Add the diced tomatoes with their juices, the kidney beans and tomato juice. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. About 15 minutes before the chili is done, bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Salt it generously. Add the spaghetti and cook to al dente following the directions on the package. Drain the pasta and add it to the pot of chili. Cover and cook for the remaining minutes so the pasta absorbs some of the chili’s flavor. Taste and add more salt and/or red pepper flakes as needed. Serve hot, with sour cream and cheese.

10 to 12 servings (makes about 14 cups).

Cranberry Dumplings 

Stir four beaten eggs into a pint and a half of sweet milk, make it into a good batter with flour, and stir into it a pint of cranberries. Beat if very well, put it into buttered tea-cups, tie a little cloth over each, and boil them as you would a pudding. When done, turn them out into a dish, spring on them a large handful of brown sugar, and pour over a pint of rich sweet cream. Cranberry dumplings may also be made like apple dumplings. 

Potato Croquettes 

  • Two cups of cold mashed potatoes; 
  • Pinch of salt, pepper; 
  • One tablespoon of butter; 
  • Whites of two eggs well beaten. 

Work all these ingredients together, make in balls, dip in beaten yolk, then in cracker crumbs, fry in hot lard, drain on paper, garnish dish with parsley. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill 

Shaker Village’s famous Shaker Lemon Pie has been on The Trustees’ Table menu since the restaurant opened in 1968, under the guidance of Elizabeth Kremer. The Village gift shops carry two different cookbooks with Kremer’s recipes. We Make You Kindly Welcome includes the first collection of traditional regional Shaker recipes compiled by Kremer, including the Shaker Lemon Pie recipe. Welcome Back to Pleasant Hill, a second collection of Kremer’s recipes from The Trustees’ Table restaurant, includes the recipe for Salsify Casserole, one of the Village’s most beloved dishes. 

Shaker Lemon Pie 

Ingredients for filling:⁠ 
2 large lemons⁠ 
4 eggs, well beaten⁠ 
2 cups sugar⁠ 
Slice lemons as thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand two hours, or preferably overnight, blending occasionally. Add beaten eggs to lemon mixture; mix well. Turn into 9-inch pie shell, arranging lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust. Cut several slits near center. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes or until silver knife inserted near edge of pie comes out clean. Cool before serving.⁠ 

Don't Leave! Sign up for Kentucky Living updates ...

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.