Girl Power, Kentucky Bourbon Balls, and Grown Women Day-Drinking



This Friday marks an annual Christmas tradition my mom and one of her oldest gal pals, Judy, observe – the “Making of the Bourbon Balls.”   It’s something they’ve been doing for over a decade, and the product of their labor goes quickly.   Some years I’ve not been quick enough on the draw to get my allotment of these wonderfully boozy candies, which have a local origin.


Some years they’re stronger than others.   Mom and Judy typically use a low to medium level bourbon that still gives you that “Kentucky kiss”, or burn down the back of the throat when you eat them.   And that’s how it should be, in my opinion. You want hard evidence the bourbon is there.


Although Mom and Judy call it part of their Christmas gift cookie process, I think it’s an excuse for two grown women to day-drink and laugh a lot.   And who can blame them?   The recipe they use, only calls for less than a cup of the magic elixir, but somehow, every year, nearly an entire bottle is depleted.


Mom used to bring them to her coworkers when she worked in a credit call center as part of their yearly Christmas cookie exchange.     One year, one of the lucky recipients of Mom’s bourbon balls was caught in a traffic jam on the way home.       She was so hungry she devoured several of the said candies. Although lucky enough to get home ok, she noticed a strong bourbon buzz coming on while she was driving.   She had some explaining to do to her husband, who noticed her giddiness.


In the co-worker’s defense,   the candies do look unassuming, like any other chocolate covered bonbon.   To the uninitiated, one bite can cause an unexpected cough when the bourbon is detected.   The whole pecan on top of each candy, though, is fair warning to those in the know, of its booziness.


And this yearly girls-only event is appropriate, since the bourbon ball is the product of a Kentucky candy company formed before women earned the right to vote by none other than two women.     Two Kentucky school teachers, Ruth Hanley (Booe) and Rebecca Gooch, decided they weren’t really all that good at teaching.   But they did realize the praise they got from friends and family for their gift of Christmas candies.   So in 1919, when few women ventured into business, the two gal pals formed the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company.   The two cooky twentysomethings had the unheard of belief that they could provide for themselves without the help of a man.


Ruth Hanley Booe, the inventor of the Bourbon Ball in 1938.

Their candy business was an instant success, with help of J.J. King, the owner of the Frankfort Hotel. They rented the hotel barroom, which had been closed by Prohibition.   Here they hand dipped their chocolates on a marble table called “Edna’s Table.”  Originally a bar top from the 1854 Old Capitol Hotel, Ruth had purchased it in 1917 after the hotel burned down.  It was named after an employee Ruth hired in 1929, and who worked for the company for 67 years.


One of their first candies was the Mint Kentucky Colonel.   Two pecan halves are placed on either side of a rich mint filling then coated with a thick dark chocolate.


In 1924, Ruth married Douglas Booe, and moved to Northern Kentucky, where she continued to make the chocolates.   But her husband died four years later, from injuries in World War I, and she moved back to Frankfurt, Kentucky.   Rebecca married soon after, and sold her stake in the candy business to Ruth.


The next year, the Great Depression hit, greatly affecting the business. Then, in 1933, Ruth’s house and candy factory burned, making her lose everything, except for “Edna’s Table.”   With help from a friend with a $50 loan, she rose out of the ashes.   The idea of mixing bourbon and chocolates came in 1936, and Ruth worked on the recipe for two years, perfecting the still-secret process for blending bourbon and candy.    So, the official birthday of the Bourbon Ball is 1938.   The unique chocolates soon became popular and sales boomed.


In 1964, Mrs. Booe retired, passing the business to her only son, John Booe. Ruth lived to the age of 82, passing away in 1973. John Booe further developed the business, expanding the factory and increasing candy production. In 1997, John sold the business to his son Charles Booe, and Charles runs the business today.


The Rebecca Ruth Candies store and factory in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Now just about every bourbon distillery has their own ‘secret-recipe’ bourbon balls in their gift shop. And numerous recipes abound so grown women, like my mom and Judy, can use them as an excuse for day-drinking – all thanks to two, not so great Kentucky school teachers – Rebecca and Ruth.

An 1894 Thanksgiving, Inheritances and Presidential Politics


The John Wiggins Flora family of Carthage, Kentucky, 1898.  John is forth from the left in the top row.     He filed suit against the Longworth family over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1894.

The Thanksgiving day headline in the 1894 Cincinnati Enquirer read  “Thanksgiving:  What shall we eat, and how will it be cooked and served?  Delicacies of the season found in the Market.    Venison is cheap at 35 cents a pound, prairie chickens are not so plentiful as they used to be and can be purchased for $1.25 a pair.  Rabbits can be bought for 10 to 15 cents, depending on their length   Wild ducks of which there is a good supply bring $1 a pair, while tame ducks are worth from 80 cents to $1 a pair.   Quails at $3 a dozen are high, considering that birds are not scarce this fall.”   So Greater Cincinnatians before the turn of the century were eating more than just turkey at their tables.

One family across the river, in Carthage, Kentucky, was sitting down to their farm country Thanksgiving and reading headlines about themselves further down the same page that morning.   Wild Campbell County turkey made their table and a host of side dishes made from fresh milk from their livestock and fresh farm produce.    They were also enjoying oyster dressing, a dish that would come down in the family, along with the Flora name for many generations.

Their patriarch  John Wiggins Flora was suing the Longworth family for his supposed share of Nicholas Longworth’s fortune.      He claimed that he was born the illegitimate child of Eliza Longworth Flagg in 1822 and carried across the river by a member of the Longworth family to a childless farm couple, James and Sarah Flora.   Since then he had raised a large family and made a name for himself as a community leader.

The headlines ripped open the Longworth family parlor doors and exposed a skeleton in their closet that had been rumor in Greater Cincinnati for over 70 years.     The case slandered one of the richest families in the U.S. and was scandal in high society from east coast to west coast.     John Flora was betting his family farm, which would pay for the cost of the case if he wasn’t able to prove his parentage and rightful share of the Longworth fortune.   He had great reputation as a community leader.   He was Justice of the Peace in Campbell County for over 25 years.    He served as election official in some post Civil War contentious elections.

What was even more contentious was the legal teams for each side.    Former Ohio Governor Joe Foraker was Flora’s lead lawyer.       Foraker was one of the most powerful Ohio Republicans and was contending to be the party candidate for president for the 1896 election.        His Republican political rival was Bellamy Storer, the husband of Maria Longworth, who started the Rookwood Pottery.   He had been an Ohio congressman for two terms and was vying for a third in 1894 before the filing of the Flora Case.     But the Hamilton County Republicans blockaded him from the third term and Charles Phelps Taft , owner of the Times Star and resident of what is now the Taft Museum, was supported in his place.    A bitter feud between Foraker and Storer ensued in the paper, and McKinley ended up being the Republican from Ohio who ended up becoming President in the 1896 Election.   Bellamy would be sent off to Belgium for a foreign minister position and out of the way of Foraker.

So, the Flora case prevented two powerful Hamilton county Republicans from the chance to become President.  The case drug on for two years, revealing the 70 year history of Greater Cincinnati from pioneer days to modern turn of the century America.     And, in true form of Gilded Age law slanting toward the rich,   Flora was up against a behemoth to prove his ancestry.     Flora would lose the case, have to sell his farm, and fall on the support of his large family.

John Wiggins Flora was my third great grandfather, and this was a story we heard about from my grandfather at the Thanksgiving table, over oyster dressing and all the wonderful sides from my grandmother’s recipes.   I always admired his bravado to take on the richest family in the area to get the answer to his life’s question, “Are you my Mommy?”    And  every Thanksgiving I wonder if DNA would answer that question today decisively.

Jefferson Davis Pie – Another Slave Cook Invention



A recent article by Cincinnati Enquirer Food Editor, Polly Campbell, taught us about Transparent Pie from Maysville, Kentucky.   Popularized by Magee’s bakery in Maysville, owners Ron and Judy Dickson, have been serving the popular Kentucky pie since 1979. It’s described as pecan pie without the pecans, and is a favorite of Augusta, Kentucky native George Clooney.   This sparked a dive into the origin of a family of pies called Kentucky Custard Pies, all who claim the chess pie as their ancestor.    There are suttle differences between the pies, like the addition of cream, or the exclusion of lemon juice or vinegar, or using spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.


The Kentucky sweet custard pies all harken back to the days when Appalacian housewives without more expensive ingredients like fruits, nuts or candies, could use simpler ingredients like eggs, sugar and butter to make ‘just pie.’     Some say chess pie came from the fact that it could be stored in a pie chest and didn’t need refrigeration.   Whatever name you call them, chess pie, buttermilk pie, transparent pie, vinegar pie, or sugar pie, they all play a big role in the Kentucky sweet culinary landscape.


One of these Kentucky custard pies has a pre Civil War History – the Jefferson Davis – and is named after the former President of the Confederacy.   With a name like this, and its popularity in the south, you’d think that it was invented there.   But it wasn’t.


The story behind the Jefferson Davis Pie opens as some of my other blogs have about food originated by slave cooks.       Mary Todd Lincoln had her father’s cook, Aunt Chaney, in Lexington, Kentucky, to teach her how to make beaten biscutis.   Jefferson had his French-trained cooks James Hemming, Mary Hemings, and her son, Peter Fossett, to make his beloved macaroni, ice cream, and other French dishes.


And the Jefferson Davis pie has its origins as well with a slave, who was bonded to the family of George B. Warren in the northern slave state city of Dover, Missouri.       Aunt Jule Ann was the master cook in the Warren family. When the family entertained distinguished guests in their home in the early 1860s, Aunt Jule Ann served a new kind of pie, she called Jefferson Davis pie.   It’s a tragedy that the pie is not named Jule Ann Pie after its inventor.


The invention and attribution of the pie to Aunt Jule Ann was documented in a St. Louis Dispatch article in August 17, 1916.   The story headline was “Jeff Davis Pie Feature of Howard County (Missouri) Reunion: Delicious Cream Pastry from Recipe of Old Slave Cook Served to Hundreds at Fayette, Missouri.”       It was the delicious end to a barbecue with fried chicken.


The Jefferson Davis pie has a few recipes – one that includes pecans, dates and raisins and one without.   But the base is a ‘spiced kentucky custard pie,’ with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.   It can be topped with meringue (which is called ‘cow froth’ in Kentucky) or whipped cream.


The pie was extremely popular in Berea, Kentucky, at its Berea College because it was served at the Boone Tavern Hotel by Richard T. Hougen, owner from 1940 to 1976.     Apparently he was a real stickler for following recipes and if he caught a cook prepping a dish without an open cook book in front of them, they were severely reprimanded.   All Berea bakers knew how to make this pie.


The Boone Tavern Hotel in Berea, Kentucky, where Jefferson Davis Pie was served for over 35 years.

The cool thing about Berea being the epicenter of Jefferson Davis Pie is that Berea College houses the Appalacian Center, which now houses the oral histories of the former Cincinnati Appalacian Council of Over-the-Rhine.




The Ozark Origin of Cashew Chicken



I recently watched an awesome food history movie, called “In Search of General Tso.”   In it we learn the origin of one of the most common Chinese American restaurant dishes – Cashew Chicken.       And, like many other American Chinese dishes – chop suey, and even the fortune cookie – it’s not a dish you will find anywhere in China.   It was created by an ingenius Chinese restauranteur, David Leong, for the American palette, specifically that of the Missouri Ozarkians.


What’s even funnier is that the dish’s influence comes from a German immigrant-created food, chicken fried steak.     Enter David Leong, a Chinese immigrant to the U.S. in 1940, who found restaurants as his way to the American dream.   His father back in Guangdong, China, was a butcher and his mother, a talented home cook.


David Leong, creator of Springfield Cashew Chicken.


His plans were to make money to bring his wife and newborn son over.   But those plans changed when WWII broke out. David enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a cook at a training camp, where he spent the duration of the war.   After bringing his wife over, they settled in Florida.


While cooking at his Chinese restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, a visiting doctor from Springfield, Missouri, so loved his cooking, he offered David the chef position at a new restaurant he was opening, Lotus Garden, in Springfield.


By 1963, David had saved enough money to open his own restaurant, which he did, Leong’s Tea House.   But before the grand opening, some locals threw 10 sticks of dynamite into the restaurant, delaying opening by a month.   But, whatever reservation the locals had, it was quickly removed when people started tasting his food.   Again, a testimonial of food being the great human equalizer!


Leong wanted to stay true to his Cantonese background with the food.   But Cantonese cuisine was not in high demand in 1960s Missouri.   So he devised a way to mix the Cantonese with Ozarks flavors.   Chicken fried steak was a popular comfort food in the area.   The result was Springfield Cashew Chicken.   David deboned chicken into little nuggets, and breaded and deep fried them like chicken fried steak.   Normally a stir fry would contain boiled chicken.   He then covered the nuggets with scallions and a brown sauce made with light and dark soy, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, ginger and chicken stock.


Other restaurants opened up in and around Springfield, all of them serving this new cashew chicken.   Many were friends of David, with whom he’d shared the recipe.   The recipe then spread throughout the Chinese restaurant community and became known simply as cashew chicken.


David’s son, Wing Wah Leong, tells a story of how popular the dish had become.  He says that in the early 1980s, people from McDonald’s Corporate visited the restaurant to learn how David was breading and deep frying the little chicken nuggets.   Of course they wanted the recipe and method free of charge, which David wasn’t willing to do.   But about a year after the visit, McDonald’s released their Chicken McNuggets.     Was it a coincidence?   Not in Wing Wah’s opinion.   He’d like the family to see some royalties.


After years of pleading from customers, the Leong’s have bottled the cashew chicken sauce, which can be bought at Hy-Vee and Price Cutter in Missouri.   David, at over 90 years old still is involved with his family’s Leong’s Asian Diner.     In 2013 he visited Hong Kong and saw a sign in a restaurant there advertising Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken.     For his Ozark-American Chinese dish to have become so popular that it was now a featured menu item in Hong Kong was a significant event for David and his family.

Nashville’s Chicken with a Nameless Creator Survived Urban Renewal



I just spent three days last week at a training session in Nashville, Tennessee.   Aside from being Music City, Nashville is also the birthplace of a hot trend sweeping the country – Hot Chicken.   It’s moved into fast food.  KFC now has Nashville Hot chicken strips.   O’Charley’s has a Nashville hot chicken sandwich and Captain D’s has a Nashville hot fish.   A hot chicken chain Joelle’s from Louisville, Kentucky, has invaded Ft. Wright, Kentucky, as has a local startup, aptly named Nashville Hot,  across the street.    Columbus, Ohio, has its Hot Chicken Takeover.    Good Morning America just had a feature this past Sunday on Nashville Hot Chicken.


So, as part of my experience, I wanted to try an original Nashville Hot item.   I knew that Prince’s was the original hot chicken. But, I also wanted to try one of the cool new farm-to-table restaurants.   I found one called Lockleand Table, in the East Nashville neighborhood of Lockeland.   They won the 2013 James Beard Award for best new restaurant.  It’s in an historically African-American neighborhood, that like our Over-the-Rhine, is coming back with renovated older homes and hip new restaurants.     They had one Nashville hot item – crispy fried Nashville Hot Pig Ears, with slaw and pickles, served on a piece of white bread.     When I ordered, the nose-pierced, friendly waitress cautioned me it was going to be hot.    And it was fairly hot.   Although I wasn’t too excited to be eating pig ears, they were sliced thin and tasted a bit like spicy, gamey bacon.   After eating it, I asked the waitress how its heat compared to Prince’s. She said they were mild in comparison.


Lockeland Table’s Nashville Hot Crispy Pig Ear appetizer.


The next day at training I grilled my fellow trainees – Nashville locals – about hot chicken. I asked how the spice levels compared to each other and why people liked it. One guy said Prince’s used to fry all their chicken to order in large cast iron skillets and had recently switched to open fryers.   This had supposedly changed the taste a bit, and maybe improved their service a bit too.   But at such high spice level, could anyone really detect a subtle difference in flavor?


Although the national trend of Nashville hot chicken is only a few years old, it’s been a staple of Nashville for over 70 years.   So why has it taken so long to make it out of Nashville?   It has to do with racial segregation. Nashville Hot chicken is a product of the city’s African-American community, where it has remained hidden in plain sight until the last decade.     Heat apparently transcends racial boundaries.   And Nashville Hot Chicken is  marinated in heat, breaded in heat, deep fried, and hot sauce-slathered post fryer.


The supposed nativity site of  Nashville Hot Chicken was started in 1945 – the Bar-B-Q Chicken Shack– although some sources say it started as early as the 1930s. Its founder was James Thornton Prince, and his brothers.   Supposedly Thornton was a womanizer and one Saturday night returned to his apartment and his girlfriend after a long night out on the town with another woman.    To get even with him, she added a ton of spices to the typical Sunday chicken breakfast, and he ended up liking it.


James Thornton Prince, the womanizing Grandfather of Nashville Hot Chicken.

According to Andre Prince Jeffries, the current owner of Prince’s, the Sunday breakfast in the Nashville African-American community was something to look forward to. It was like a buffet and in addition to eggs, had other items like fried chicken, fish, fried corn, baked beans, and baked apples.


The Prince Family, turn of the century.  Thorton’s sharecropper father, Thornton II (far left in rocking chair) and mother, Mary, center.  Brothers John Henry, Boyd, William, Alphonzo, and sisters Fannie, Maymie, and a third sister form a strong African-American family unit.

Thornton took the recipe from his scorned ex-girlfriend. locally known as ‘Girlfriend-X’,  and opened his own chicken shack.   Sadly, no one knows who this mysterious girlfriend was that formulated the super-spicy recipe.     And, old timers in Nashville’s black community say before Prince’s there was a place called Bo’s.   So somewhat by default, Thornton is named as the Grandfather of Nashville Hot Chicken.


The first location was at the corner of Jefferson and 28th Avenue.   After a few years moved into Hell’s Half Acre, near Ryman Auditorium which housed the Grand Ole Opry.   Hell’s Half Acre was a neighborhood in the lowlands north of the capital where the poorest blacks lived. This location was in the middle of an urban renewal project that the city took to make the library and archives.   So Prince’s moved a second time.   But the third location was too far away from town, and they moved a third time to 17th and Charlotte, in the heart of the black neighborhood near where Krystal’s is today


The business was a sideline for the brothers.   Thornton had a farm and his brothers either worked for the post office or other restaurants. They opened after the normal business day and stayed open till midnight on weeknights and till 4 AM on weekends.    When Thornton died, his brother Will took over.   Will’s son Bruce was next, and in 1980, Bruce’s daughter, Andre Prince Jeffries became the owner.     She added the spice levels, so that more people could enjoy the chicken, if they weren’t up for the XXX Hot.   She also changed the name to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, and used a cartoony logo of her great uncle as mascot. They just opened a second location in September near Franklin just south of Nashville.


Current Owner Andre Prince Jeffries.

One of the first offshoots of Prince’s was from Bolton Polk, the disgruntled chef, who left and started his own place in the 1970s called Columbo’s Chicken Shack, where he served his own version of hot chicken with his wife’s chess pies and potato salad.   In 1997 his nephew opened Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish with his wife and business partner, that’s still in business today.


The trend took off after the first Nashville Hot Chicken Festival in 2007.   Pepperfire Chicken opened in 2010.   Hattie B’s opened in 2012, owned by Nick Bishop Jr. and Sr. in Midtown, Nashville.    The Bishops had success in Franklin, Tennessee, with Bishop’s Meat and Three restaurant.    Their hottest spice level is called “Shut the Cluck Up.”


Both hot fish and hot chicken were around in the Nashville area’s African-American community way before the opening of either Bo’s or Prince’s.     So the female creator may go back even further than the unnamed girlfriend.


A mural of Great Uncle Thornton Prince at Prince’s newly opened second location south of Nashville.

Now there are over 15 restaurants in Nashville that serve a hot chicken item, and the trend continues to push its way in the mainstream.

The German Kugelhopf that Spawned the American Bundt Cake


The German Kugelhopf cake that spawned our American bundt cake.


There’s a local cake franchise that’s made it to Cincy this year called Nothing Bundt Cakes.   Founders Dina Tripp and Debby Shwetz are ‘bringing back the bundt’.     Repopularizing a cake straight out of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations sounds like a tall task, but they saw a niche for readily available cakes.  They offer these in the form of the classic bundt cake.   But, they’ve also innovated by offering ‘bundtinis’ or cupcake sized versions of the bundt cake.   So far there are two franchised locations, one in Hyde Park and one in Mason.


The bundt cake has been around in the U.S. since Northland Aluminum Company trademarked the Bundt pan through its Nordic Wares kitchen line in the early 1950s.


The inventor of the bundt pan is Henry David Dalquist (1918-2005), from Minnesota, the Land of the Hot Casserole (see my blog January 5, 2016 – The Hot Dish a Minnesota Threeway).   He began his professional life as a metallurgical engineer for U.S. Steel in Duluth, Minnesota.   But after returning from service during World War II, he founded the Northland Aluminum Company.     In 1950 he was approached by a group of women asking him to design a pan that could make “kugel”, a pudding or cake popular in Europe.


H. David Dalquist, Sr., inventor of the bundt pan.

Also known as Gugelhupf or Kugelhopf, it is a European brioche-like cake which was particularly popular among the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, and Poland. The noodle kugel of American Jewish delis is a cousin of this family of desserts.     Etymology points to the German word hupfen, which means to jump, because the yeast dough literally jumps out of the pan.


Dalquist’s response to the ladies was a fluted cast aluminum pan with a hole in the center.   It evenly cooked the cake or pudding outside and in, creating a firm outer crust and a moist interior.   A 1966 recipe that won the Pillsbury Bake-off, using the pan, launched the bundt pan into American kitchen iconography.     Since then, 45 million have been sold and Dalquist was inducted into the Entrepreneur’s Hall of Fame in Boston in 1987.


In Europe, the Gugelhupf consists of a soft yeast dough, which contains raisins, almonds, and Kirschwasser or cherry brandy.   Some are filled with candied fruits and nuts.   Other Eastern European varieties (Czech, Hungarian, and Slovakian) integrate their favorite regional filling – sweetened ground poppy seeds.   It is baked in a special tall circular pan with a central tube, originally made from enameled pottery.


European enameled Gugelhopf pans.



A Czech version of the Gugelhopf, with poppyseed filling.

The cake is also popular in In Northern Germany, where it’s traditionally called bundkuchen, which is where the name bundt derives.       I remember in the 70’s JELL-O tried to ride the coattails of the bundt craze by creating recipes for JELL-O and pudding filled bundts, which were arguably delicious.   We’ll see if Nothing Bundt Cakes can take them out of the Church undercroft and into the mainstream.


Chocolate Shrink-flation and Brexit


The new Brexit Toblerone bar with 10% less chocolate.


We’re all anxious to see how the results of today’s U.S. election will affect our well-being for the years to come.   In England, they’re already seeing the effects of the recent vote to ‘Brexit’ the European Union.   And, it’s effects are being seen in food – specifically Toblerone Chocolate. The immediate effect of Brexit was sending the British pound into a dizzying nosedive.       So that means food products are now more expensive to produce, chocolate included.


In order to make up for this, and instead of raising prices and creating sticker shock, Modelez International, the U.S. company that makes Toblerone is shrinking the size of its triangular chocolate bars.   The spaces in between each triangular piece are increasing, amounting to about 10% less chocolate per bar.   The packaging remains the same, but the bar inside has suffered from shrinkage in a method called ‘shrinkflation.’      Fans in the UK are up in arms saying what used to look like the Swiss alps now looks more like a bicycle rack.   The company has gotten criticism for changing its iconic shape and left a bitter taste in people’s mouths about the change.


Other British food products like Marmite – the nasty yeasty jelly for toast and biscuits – have risen 12% in price since Brexit.


The good thing is that times of scarcity and high prices create food innovation.   When the price of chocolate went up in the mid 20th century, the Europeans replaced some of it with hazelnut paste and invented the amazing food spread Nutella. A shortage of tomatoes in the post WWII Philippines helped spawn banana ketchup.   So let’s see if any new commercial food innovation happens in Britain in the next year to deal with increasing prices.

Let’s hope the results of our home election doesn’t create any shrink-flation in our beloved food products!