Louisville’s Benedictine Spread: The Birth of American Middle Class Food

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A regional fave for Derby Day parties, not well known outside of Louisville, Kentucky, is the Benedictine spread.     It’s not, as it might sound,  a product of religious monks or nuns, looking for a light snack before Vespers.    It’s the invention, as many grateful Kentuckians know, of a benevolent  Victorian era caterer, Miss Jennie Carter Benedict, who created it in the 1890s.    To Louisvillians, the Benedictine spread is like ketchup, and many can’t imagine a party or a brunch without it.

 

It’s a spread of cream cheese, cucumbers, a bit of grated onion or chopped green onions, and a few drops of green food coloring, and some spice or tobasco.    Some cooks add dill to get the color or a bit of grated cucumber peel to keep the flavor more direct.     If it’s thinned out with mayonnaise or sour cream,  Benedictine becomes a dip.    As a dip, you can slather it on saltine crackers or party rye.   It’s most commonly made into a  finger sandwich.   To create a colorful spread at their Derby parties, some folks buy green and pink dyed loaves, filling the green with pimento cheese, and the pink with Benedictine spread.

 

The Benedictine is a beloved regional food, but more importantly it represents the emergence of the New American middle class food in the late 19th century.  Miss Jennie, is given credit for shaping the tastebuds of the Kentucky elite and the emerging middle-class.  She catered weddings and parties for Louisville’s most prominent families, whose tastes were broadly influential, and she wrote cookbooks.   She took cooking classes at the Boston Cooking School while Fanny Farmer was there, who is also given credit for creating the American middle class food palate of the 20th century.    The school taught “American” cooking.     This was a newly emerging food category inspired by British or New England traditions, different from French food associated with the rich,  and the food of recent immigrants.

The restaurant Miss Jennie opened after returning from Boston, pioneered this new kind of middle-class entertaining and dining.   The  food she served was  seen as genteel and respectable, but not aristocratic. Benedict’s restaurant  was part of the emerging middle-ground between the pubs and cafeterias that catered to the  working class and fancy restaurants that catered only to the wealthy. Miss Jennie’s food was a newly “respectable” version of recognizable, “American” ingredients and methods  within reach for families who couldn’t afford the regiment of servants needed to prepare fussy French meals.

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Jennie Benedict’s Restaurant and tea room in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jennie Carter Benedict was born in Harrods Creek, KY on March 25, 1860, to John and Mary Richards Benedict.   Her family had a wholesale business in molasses and other staples. The area is named for Harrods Creek. The namesake of the creek is either James Harrod founder of Fort Harrod (modern Harrodsburg), or Captain William Harrod, an early Louisvillian  The area became agricultural in the early 19th century, primarily selling flour and cornmeal to the nearby market of Louisville.  Harrods Creek was a hot spot for unloading cargo in the late 18th century. People wanted to avoid Louisville because it was a disease infested swamp. Farmers and millers were particularly attracted to Harrods Creek due to the rich bottomland and abundant water.

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Jennie Carter Benedict, the creator of Benedictine Spread.

At an early age, Miss Jennie displayed an skill for the culinary arts and for catering parties and events. This was the beginning  of a career that lasted more than thirty-two years and spanned many cities in the Midwest, especially Louisville and St. Louis.

 

She first entered business behind her home at Third and Ormsby in 1893 in a kitchen that was built behind the residence. She sent out 500 circulars to friends, offering to “to take orders, from a cup of chocolate to a large reception, sandwiches on short order, cakes large or small, trays and dainty dishes for the invalid.”  She began making fruitcakes, then she sold chicken salad sandwiches to students from a pushcart. Before long, her sweet and savory dishes became the centerpieces of parties and her business quickly grew.

 

Her first store and catering enterprise opened on May 1, 1900, with partners Salome E. Kerr and Charles Scribner at 412 South Fourth Street. In 1911, a new “Benedict’s” restaurant opened at 554 South Fourth Street. It was a beautiful establishment with an elegant soda fountain made from the rocks of Mammoth Cave.    The business required 65 employees to operate its catering and restaurant operation, which included the creation of fine confections, candies and ice cream.

 

In 1923 she was given an opportunity to move her business to St. Louis where she had catered. As attractive as the proposal was, Jennie was overwhelmed at the response of the citizens of Louisville to remain here. A committee of the retail business association was formed and in an unprecedented move, collectively presented her with a letter saying that “Louisville can ill afford to lose a citizen like you, one who has always been a leader in every civic and social movement and who has always stood for the advancement of its commercial interests. The name of Jennie C. Benedict & Co. has radiated to all parts of our country the name of Louisville.” Miss Jennie decided to remain in Louisville and continue to give them the “very best that can be had.”

 

In 1925 Jennie sold her business for $50,000, and retired to her home Dream Acre in Indianola overlooking the Ohio River on a bluff near Mellwood Avenue. She remained active in her many charities including King’s Daughters Home, and the Woman’s Club of Louisville.  For a time, Miss Jennie acted as editor of the household department of the Courier-Journal.  She wrote an autobiography entitled The Road to Dream Acre. Jennie Benedict died on July 24, 1928, and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.

 

Although she never married, she is said to have loved children and threw  weekend costume parties for them.

Benedict’s cook books are still being sold a century after they were  published.  Her The Blue Ribbon Cook Book, published in 1902, has been reprinted numerous times and most recently in 2008.   Oddly enough, the cook book never contained the Benedictine spread recipe, for which she is most famous.   Her cookbook contained recipes as sophisticated as Lobster a la Newburg, to convenience foods like Little Pigs in a Blanket.    Some of Benedict’s dishes have fallen out of favor, like calf brains and peptonized oysters for the sick.    But, she endures,  and the roots of many of Louisville’s flavors can be traced back to her recipes.

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