Owen County Historical Society News: Traditional foods still have a home

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By Bonnie Strassell

Recipes are pieces of history. They have been written down on small scraps of paper or verbally passed from one generation to another. Early arrivals of Owen County shared recipes with family and friends, and today those same recipes produce a variety of specialties that originated in England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Africa.
Kentucky can boast of famous recipes that originated right here in the Commonwealth. The hot Brown sandwich was invented by a chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926. A cool cucumber sandwich we know as Benedictine was concocted by Jennie Benedict, a Louisville caterer. The classic mint julep and derby pie are synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. And everyone has heard of the Colonel’s famous recipe for his fried chicken. The chicken had its origins in Corbin in the 1940s.
As early as 1775, enterprising Kentuckians, who had an abundance of corn, began making corn whiskey. And by the mid-1800s, Kentucky distillers had developed other distinguishing characteristics for its product, such as aging the whiskey in charred new barrels and using sour mash starter to gain a consistent high quality from batch to batch. Some people credit Kentucky’s limestone water with giving bourbon its smooth taste. Soon medicinal uses of whiskey were discovered and alcohol took on new names such as “elixir” and “tonic.”
Bread has always played a star role in the Kentucky diet. Early pioneers carried a bread “starter” in crocks. This took the place of yeast which was not in abundant supply. During the Depression, the sourdough starter was commonplace in homes. Every few days a little flour, sugar, and water were added to keep the starter fermenting. When baking day came, the starter was taken out of hiding, and using only part of it, the housewife would add a bit of water, sugar, and a dollop of bacon grease or lard. Flour was added, then the whole was mixed, kneaded, and set to rise. Today many Owen countians use the same process to produce delicious, aromatic loaves of bread. Starters were also used to make pancakes and biscuits smothered in gravy. A country wife took on a big responsibility, for it was her job to prepare meals, sometimes for threshing crews; and when money was tight, everything possible was raised in the vegetable garden, picked along the roadside, the edges of fields, and in the woods.
Recipes were not just for food either. There were herbal recipes for sicknesses, cuts, burns, and broken bones. Recipes to rid children of lice or dogs and cats from fleas were also passed down. The pungent lye soap had its own recipe and it varied from household to household. Some claim nothing gets bodies cleaner than a bar of fresh lye soap. Soap even played a part in a local Owen County election. Bill Swope and Perry Minor were both running for circuit clerk. Swope bought a wagon load of soap with the slogan inscribed on each bar: “Vote for Swope.” However, he lost the election, and it is not known whether the soap played a part in that defeat.
Homemade soap was used for washing clothes as well as for bathing. An article by Allan Trout written in 1960 for the “Courier-Journal” gave a recipe for washing clothes. Called “Grandmother’s Receet” it listed steps for doing the weekly wash and they were: 1. Bild fire in back yard to het kettle of rain water. 2. Set tub so smoke won’t blow in eyes if wind is pert. 3. Shave 1 hole cake lie sope. 4. Sort things. 5. Stur flour in cold water to smooth, then thin down with bilin water 6. Rub dirty spots on board. Scrub hard. 7. take white things out of kettle with broom handel, then rench, blew and starch. 8. Spread tee towels on grass.9. Hang old rags on fence. 10. Pour rench water in flower bed. 11. Scrub porch with sopy water. 12. Turn tubs upside down. 13. Go put on clean dress. Smooth hair, brew cup of tea, set and rest and rock a spell and count blessins. 
Perhaps the most important ingredient in any recipe is counting our blessings; for whether they are recipes for food, remedies, or for just washing clothes, they all are part of our heritage and traditions that need to be preserved.
A few more weeks of preparation and the museum will be ready to welcome guests to our dedication of the Kentucky River Room. Special thanks to all society members, especially President Jeannie Baker, Darrel Baker and Jim Acton, who have contributed so much time and effort to make this important day possible.