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Digging In to the Kentucky Hot Brown

Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call
The Kentucky Hot Brown as interpreted by Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown.

Thank you, Chris Pogue (wherever you may now be), for dispatching this food sleuth on one of the most delectable assignments to date.

The one-time House aide — confidence is medium he’s since moved on, given that recent attempts to connect via email bounced back as “undeliverable” — pled his case to Noshtalgia a while ago, and actually provided a wealth of potential targets to consider.

“I’m from Kentucky and I miss the food dearly.  . . .  This includes specialties such as Derby Pie, Hot Brown sandwiches, fried okra, hush puppies, etc.,” Pogue penned in his request for guidance on inexpensive eateries that might cater to his particular appetites. “I’m having trouble finding anything online so I am asking the best food purveyor out there who knows D.C. best. Can you help me out?”

My affinity for saucy sandwiches (see: dripping-with-yolk Croque Madames; Monte Cristos slathered in hollandaise) naturally steered me toward the renowned Hot Brown.

A Thing of Legend

As anyone who’s ever attempted to engage Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in conversation before well knows, Kentucky is the birthplace of American-style bourbon whiskey.

And while the multitude of “brown water” makers continues to spiral — their evocative elixirs multiplying like rabbits on stacked-till-nearly-sagging bar shelves — the Bluegrass State also lays claim to the origin story of one of the great late-night munchies.

According to the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., the now-iconic sandwich got off to a rather inauspicious start.

“In the 1920’s, the Brown Hotel drew over 1,200 guests each evening for its dinner dance. In the wee hours of the morning, the guests would grow tired of dancing and retire to the restaurant for a bite to eat. Diners were rapidly growing bored with the traditional ham and eggs, so Chef Fred Schmidt set out to create something new to tempt his guests’ palates,” the hotel explains on its website. “His unique creation was an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce. Exemplifying our unending dedication to serving our guests, the Hot Brown was born!”

Food historian John T. Edge delved deeper into the history-making strategy session that hatched the multi-layered feast in his 2007 tome, “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South.”

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