The story below is an excerpt from our March/April 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Food and restaurants have become an important engine in transforming the economy of this part of the state. These dining rooms are playing an important role—and are serving wonderful food.
A Bread Pudding Surprise
Our trek through four cities in Kentucky coal country begins in Inez, population around 700 and home to Miss Ida’s Tea Room.
Ida Belle Davis died in 2011 at the age of 83, but her presence is still strongly felt in Inez. Based on what people in town told us, we’d describe Miss Ida as a perfect example of Kentucky gentility. She came to work every day, until three months before her death, “dressed to the nines,” but not above scrubbing the tea room floor.
“She was the best friend I ever had,” recalls Willa Burchett, who manages Miss Ida’s Tea Room. “She was a fun-loving person who enjoyed gardening and working in the yard.”
And she loved feeding the people of Inez. Her legacy lives on through classic tea room dishes like chicken salad and potato soup and daily lunch specials like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans—all prepared, as Willa tells us, by cooks, not chefs.
“We very seldom serve anything from a can except green beans, and people can’t tell them from fresh,” she adds.
The chicken salad is the shredded variety, made every three days and served either in a croissant or in a mound as a side dish.
When Miss Ida’s husband died in 1999, her son-in-law, local entrepreneur Jim Booth, converted a former doctor’s office and drugstore into a tea room. Now it’s a mandatory stop for Kentucky politicians and a favorite of Senator Mitch McConnell.
Among several other business ventures, Booth owns a coffee company called Shuffle Bean, using Costa Rican coffee beans from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms.
A cup of Booth’s coffee and a plate of bread pudding elegantly end the meal at Miss Ida’s. We’ve been served bread pudding by New Orleans chefs who claim to be masters of the craft, but none of the Crescent City creations we’ve sampled can top Miss Ida’s.
“Let me get you a spoon,” says Ernestine Muncy, a server at the tea room. “You’ve got to have the sauce. The sauce is what makes it.”
Although Kentucky is the land of bourbon, we admit a rush of homeland pride when we discovered that the sauce is made with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Of this minimalist bread pudding with a scattering of chopped pecans on top and no raisins, Willa Burchett adds, “The better the liquor the better it is.”
Miss Ida’s Tea Room
1432 Main Street
Edible History in Pikeville
“We take things people cook around here and do them our own way,” says Matt Corbin, who runs Pike-ville’s The Blue Raven with his wife Heather.
Take the Kentucky Hot Brown, one of the world’s grandest open-faced sandwiches. It was created across the state, at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, by Chef Fred Schmidt in 1926 as a late-night alternative to ham and eggs. For the turkey or ham slices typically used in the dish, Corbin substitutes smoked chicken. And to create the mandatory Mornay sauce topping, he adds Gouda cheese to his béchamel. He retains the traditional criss-crossing of bacon but instead of plain tomatoes, he marinates them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and herbs.
A common theme among the restaurant owners and employees we met on this trip is a deep respect for the history that surrounds them. The photographs on the walls at The Blue Raven tell the story of businessman Frank Justice, Matt Corbin’s grandfather. One features a pile of flood-damaged shoes from Justice’s Shoe Store. Floods plagued downtown Pikeville almost yearly until the creation of the Cut-Through, one of the largest civil engineering projects in the Western Hemisphere. It involved railroad relocation, new highway construction, and the rerouting of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River away from the downtown area. The project was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1987 at a cost of $77.6 million. It took 14 years.
Corbin’s grandfather was in the food business, too. On the wall to the left as you enter The Blue Raven is a black-and-white photo of Jerry’s Drive-In, which Frank Justice opened in the 1960s.
In fact, Frank Justice’s influence is felt throughout his grandson’s restaurant. The barn wood beams and the wood that was used to build the bar came off Justice’s farm in Bourbon County, as did the tin roof that tops the restaurant’s patio.
The name of the restaurant derives from the raven that forms part of the Corbin family crest and from Matt Corbin’s love for the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with a degree in marketing and management. From there he went on to earn a culinary arts degree from Sullivan University in Louisville, creating, along the way, such dishes as apple salsa remoulade. At The Blue Raven, it accompanies crab cakes, which have been on the menu since the beginning.
The drink menu features 25 different Kentucky bourbons. Corbin says he would like to add even more but is having trouble getting some brands because of foreign sales.
We began our dinner with ethereal corn muffins and ended it with strawberry shortcake. True to the philosophy of making regional dishes his own, instead of biscuit-like layers, Corbin uses Johnnycakes.
The Blue Raven
211 Main Street