Brown on both sides

By Hyacinth Miles

There is no culinary sensation so profoundly Kentuckian as the screaming of your arteries after eating a hot brown. The hot brown enjoys an almost mythic status in Kentucky cooking. No one will admit to eating one, but clearly everyone is lying.

But I’ll admit to it. I’ll proudly say that I have eaten the most theoretically disgusting (and yet strangely delicious) food in the world. In fact, I’ve done it several times. Sacrificing myself on the alter that is this food column I embarked on an epic journey, sampling from the wide range of hot brown available in the Lexington era. And so I am able to bring to you the testament of my experience, a journal of the hot brown.

But first let’s review the original recipe for the hot brown, invented in1923, by Chef Fred Schmidt at the famous Brown Hotel in Louisville:

Hot Brown Recipe
4 oz. Butter
Flour to make a roux (about 6 tablespoons)
3 – 3.5 cups Milk
1 Beaten Egg
6 tbsp. Grated Parmesan Cheese
1 oz. Whipped Cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Slices of roast turkey
8-12 slices of toast (may be trimmed)
Extra parmesan for topping
8-12 strips of fried bacon

So that’s it, the bench mark by which all other hot browns are judged, and with that we go to:

Day 1: Dudley’s, Lexington, KY.
Dudley’s hot brown turns out to be very close to the original recipe, with one exception, very little cheese. So this is good news, if you don’t like cheese. On the other hand, if you don’t like cheese, you’re probably not the sort of person who would eat a hot brown anyway. Mmmm, cheese....

Day 2: Serafini, Frankfort, KY.
The best thing about this hot brown is its size. It is very small. This might seem like the worst sort of backhanded compliment, but one of the most oppressive things about hot browns in general is their enormous bulk, thus combining the dubious virtues of being extremely filling and exorbitantly large, mocking you before you even picked up your fork.

The other interesting thing about Serafini’s hot brown is that it was made on sourdough, instead of the standard white bread.

Day 3: Ramsey’s, Lexington, KY.
One word: cheese. Ramsey’s has got it. They substitute cheddar cheese for the parmesan in the original hot brown recipe, but otherwise it’s definitely a classic. This hot brown is a Lexington favorite and is about as big as your head. I have a friend out of state who is so enamored of Ramsey’s hot brown she insists that I get one to go and drive it up to her, every time I visit. This hot brown is delicious. I manage to eat about a bite and a half.

Day 4: Political hot brown. I go to see the presidential debates at a rally held at Winchell’s, the sports bar and restaurant on Southland drive. Despite my profound desire never to eat a hot brown again, I try theirs and find it to be delicious, pretty much the platonic ideal of a hot brown. Since both Winchell’s cooks/owners attended the Culinary Institute this isn’t too surprising. I actually eat about half of this hot brown, because it tastes so darn good.

Day 5: I never want to eat again.

Day 6: Nope, still not hungry.

Day 7: It has now been three days since I’ve eaten anything. Maybe this could be a new form of crash diet, you eat 3,000 calories in one sitting and then you don’t eat again for half a week. As I understand it, this is something like the approach that the Sex in the City characters take.

Day 8: I’m still not hungry. My mom takes me out to Buddy’s, where they have sort of combined the mornay sauce and the parmesan topping of their hot brown into a single, nacho-cheese like sauce. I put down my fork fairly quickly. My mother makes acerbic comments about starving children in China.

Day 9: Briefly consider driving to Louisville to have the original hot Brown at the Brown Hotel, but decide, on reflection, that my time could be spent doing almost anything else.

Day 10: Confident that I will never want to eat another hot brown again (except, possibly from Winchell’s) I convince my father to take me to DeSha’s and order a hot brown himself, so that I can try it. My father started talking about the physical he had just had. “According to the risk factors,” he said, “I have a five percent chance of having a heart attack” the waiter set the hot brown in front of him, “within the next five years.” There is a moment of horrified silence, which the waiter, a consummate professional, pretends not to notice.

So that’s it, I’m done. It’s all very well to put your own health on the line, but once you start endangering your family members it’s clear something has to give. My hatred of salad is legend in my family, but now I’m having a craving for something crunchy and green, and I plan to indulge, just as soon as I start eating again. n