Review: Wallace Station & the Inside Out Hot Brown

WS building

There’s no drive more enjoyable than Old Frankfort Pike, which connects Lexington and Frankfort, Kentucky. The rolling hills, horse farms, and stone fences are quintessentially Bluegrass. But I had a new destination on this trip: Wallace Station.

WS stepsWallace Station is a sandwich shop in an old former country store in essentially the middle of nowhere (it seems that way, but it’s actually quite accessible, and a joy to drive to). I had come in search of their Inside Out Hot Brown, a sandwich take on the Kentucky classic. I have documented my favorite hot brown from Ramsey’s in Lexington. Would Wallace Station live up to high expectations?

I arrived a little past peak lunch time on a Saturday, but the line was still out the door and down the stairs. The line moved quickly, though, and I spotted my target on the menu board.

WS menu board

Also calling to me was the pie and pastry display. Wallace Station brings in baked goods from its nearby sister shop the Midway School Bakery. I resisted as much as I could, but allowed myself a Woodford cookie, named after the county the restaurant is in. As a former resident of Woodford County myself I couldn’t really pass that up. And while I’m still not exactly sure what the Woodford cookie is, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

WS pies

Cookie collage

After placing your order at the counter, you can find your seat and wait for the food to be brought out to you. Inside seating is limited; most dining is on the back deck and at picnic tables in the yard. The weather was wonderful that day, the scene idyllic, so I didn’t mind the wait for my Inside Out Hot Brown.

WS backyard

And, indeed, it was worth the wait. The Inside Out Hot Brown is just that. While a traditional hot brown is a baked open faced sandwich with bread, turkey, ham, tomato, bacon, and mornay sauce that you need to eat with a fork, the Wallace Station version puts everything inside the bread like a traditional sandwich. The fresh Wallace Station bread from their Midway bakery really takes the sandwich to the next level. This is a serious sandwich that competes on its own terms with the best traditional hot browns. The size is large enough to split with a friend. I ate half and packed up the other for later.

Hot Brown

While the menu at Wallace Station is deep, it will be hard to order anything else. And there’s that pie and cookie display to explore. I look forward to driving down Old Frankfort Pike again.

Back to Lexington: Parkette Drive-In

Parkette signFor my entire life I have been in and out of Lexington, Kentucky. I went to college there. I worked there. During all those decades I have driven by Lexington landmark Parkette Drive In innumerable times. And I never once stopped despite the classic sign beckoning me in.

This trip, I decided, would be different. Vowing to break out of my ritualistic visit to Ramsey’s Diner (don’t get me wrong, you should go to Ramsey’s), I decided to spread my culinary wings. Parkette Drive In it was.

Parkette is a true 1950s era drive in straight out of American Graffiti (yes, I know it was set in 1962, but you get the point). It’s the kind of place after which a modern chain like Sonic is modeled. Parkette plugged along for over 50 years before finally closing, only to be purchased and reopened a decade ago.

Parkette garageThe newly revitalized Parkette has proved to be so popular a new Eat-In Garage was added. An open air building with garage doors all around and ceiling fans to keep things cool, it blends well with the traditional drive-in vibe. They’ve played on the garage theme with old signs (and replicas) covering the walls.

I arrived right at lunch time, and the Parkette was busy but without wait. I decided to go for their Big Lex Burger with onion rings. Faced with Pepsi products, I chose the strawberry shake, a drive-in staple.

Water arrived, then the milkshake, both in Pepsi cups. (A nice touch would be for Parkette to have their own cups, particularly for non-Pepsi items.) The burger basket followed after a reasonable wait.

The Big Lex is a bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce on Texas toast. It is a great burger, a definite step up from chain fare. The meat was juicy, the toast gave it a different spin from the standard bun. My regret was not springing for the extra bacon.

Parkette Big Lex

The onion rings were good, about what you would expect them to be. And that strawberry shake was quite tasty, although not out of the ballpark good. There is room for improvement with both, but don’t hesitate to order either one. And while I’m at it, a switch to Coke products would be nice, but unlikely to happen.

Authentic drive-ins are few and far between these days, and the ones that remain deserve our support. I’ll do my part to help keep the Parkette going when I can.

Off the Shelf: Allen Tate, Wendell Berry, & Sewanee’s Discarded ‘The Hidden Wound’

Hidden Wound cover

Years ago, perhaps when I was still in graduate school, I stopped at a Chattanooga used bookshop when passing through. One has a mental list of authors to check, and I happened to find an uncommon thing: a hardcover first edition of Wendell Berry’s 1970 book on race and the South, The Hidden Wound. The disappointment was that it clearly was an ex-library copy. An ex-library copy can be the ultimate disappointment–a rare book that is worthless to the collector.

Hidden Wound discardBut this first edition was different. It had been discarded by the nearby prestigious Sewanee: The University of the South, and on the front pastedown was a donor’s bookplate. It read: “This Book is placed in The Library of the University of the South by Allen Tate.” I paid whatever small price they were asking, thrilled at this unique association copy.

Allen Tate was a Kentuckian by birth, and one of the Fugitive Poets who attended Vanderbilt University in the 1920s. Several of them were later part of the The Nashville Agrarians who wrote the classic I’ll Take My Stand, a book that has had a great deal of influence on me.

During the 1940s, Tate, and his friend I’ll Take My Stand contributor Andrew Lytle, transformed the small literary journal The Sewanee Review into a national powerhouse. After a time away from the South teaching at the University of Minnesota, Tate returned to live in Sewanee, Tennessee during the 1960s.

Hidden Wound bookplateIt was during the ’60s that another Kentucky novelist, poet and essayist was rising to prominence. Wendell Berry was an authentic agrarian in a way the Nashville Agrarians had never been. Tate took favorable notice of Berry, and the two eventually began a correspondence.

I had long intended to show Wendell Berry my book as I felt like having it signed by him would bring its association full circle. But I was unsure how Berry might react. I can’t imagine one would relish finding one’s book discarded from a prominent university library. But it was the donor I thought Berry would be interested to see.

And indeed he was. When I showed the volume to Berry recently at his home he was visibly moved that Tate had seen fit to attach his name to it. Berry spoke of how he had once made a public quip about how few of the Southern Agrarians had seen fit to stay in the South. Tate, Warren, and John Crowe Ransom had all taken positions in the North. Tate had shown great patience with him, Berry said, writing to explain that they had had no choice: no university in the South had wanted them.

Berry told that Tate had felt that The Hidden Wound had been too apologetic on the race issue, although he pointed to Tate’s poem “The Swimmers” as an example of Tate himself wrestling with race and the South. In the poem, Tate tells the story of stumbling across a lynching as a young boy in Winchester, Kentucky when he and friends were on their way for a summer swim.

Hidden Wound InscriptionBerry happily inscribed the book, expressing his appreciation for Allen Tate:
“I am proud of this copy/of this book for I greatly/respect the memory and/the work of Allen Tate./Wendell Berry/9/23/13”

Of all the different Wendell Berry volumes I own, this one is now the most special to me. Not only does it have such wonderful personal association value, but because of it I have the memory of the book giving Wendell such great pleasure at seeing it.

Hidden Wound endpapers

Lexington Road Trip: Lunch at Ramsey’s Diner

Ramsey's doorThe great thing about going to Lexington is that my two favorite places are just around the corner and across the street from each other. When one is famished from browsing at Black Swan Books you will find that Ramsey’s Diner is only a quick walk away.

Ramsey’s Diner opened around the same time I started at the University of Kentucky, although I didn’t eat there until a fellow editor at the student daily The Kentucky Kernel took me there for lunch during my senior year. I’ve been devoted to Ramsey’s ever since. They’ve blossomed into a local Lexington chain while maintaining their quality. I’ve eaten at most of their locations across town, but for my now rare trips to Lexington I prefer the original.

Ramsey’s menu is anchored by a meat and three menu, and I’m a particular fan of their chicken fried steak. But the vegetables are the real stars here. Ramsey’s does an excellent job of sourcing locally grown fresh vegetables. When I was there it was their annual “Corn Daze” when corn is in season and featured in all its culinary forms.

Living in an agricultural region of the South, it’s frustrating that more restaurants won’t do this. The food is far fresher, the taste better, the local economy stronger. It shows respect for the customers they serve and the community they profit from. Ramsey’s has it right.

These days I get to Ramsey’s so seldomly, maybe twice a year, I can’t resist ordering my favorite thing on the menu: the Hot Brown. The Hot Brown is a Kentucky tradition, and hard to find outside the Commonwealth. It also happens to be the world’s most perfect food, a combination of bread, ham, turkey, mornay sauce, cheese and bacon.

Hot Brown

Since corn and tomatoes were in season, I added on fried corn and fried green tomatoes. I didn’t regret the choices in the least. In fact, one can have an incredibly fine meal at Ramsey’s with their vegetable plate.

Corn Daze

And did I mention that Ramsey’s has its own attached pie shop? Well, it does, and Missy’s Pies knows what they’re doing. Again, my order is preordained. I can’t not get the key lime pie. The new waitress brought it without the whipped cream, but I sent it back for the necessary garnish.

Key Lime Pie

It’s hard for me to give Ramsey’s an entirely objective review as there is quite a bit of my old Kentucky home nostalgia tied up with it. But I don’t know anything on the menu that I would change. I never leave disappointed, and I imagine if you go you won’t, either.

Road Trip to Lexington: Black Swan Books

More Books

My old University of Kentucky dorm, Haggin Hall, was demolished this spring. Now it’s just a hole in the ground. K-Lair, the nearby grill where I bought chicken sandwiches as a freshman, is gone, too. Twenty years on, the old alma mater is a lot different than it used to be. Such was the realization last month when I found myself in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the best places in the world.

Some things are better in Lexington, though, and one of those is my favorite bookstore, Black Swan Books. Recently featured on a New York Times blog, the Lexington landmark is not only going strong, but it’s far bigger than it was when I went to college.

Black Swan front

Black Swan is on my short list of must-visits on any trip to Lexington. I can talk politics with Michael (not for the faint of heart), and invariably find more books than I can reasonably leave with. On this visit, after a welcoming hug from Michael’s wife Kim, Michael asked, “Do you owe me money?” (The answer was–and usually is–“yes,” but we shan’t dwell on that.)

I first strolled into Black Swan Books as an undergraduate, and I’ve been going back ever since. I worked there for awhile back in the ’90s, running the shop when Michael was out of town and sometimes going with Michael on big book hauls. I also put a lot of dust jacket covers on books. A lot.Michael

As usual, Michael had just bought hundreds of “new” books, which crowded the walkways in tomato boxes. (I learned from Michael years ago that tomato boxes are perfect for storing and moving books. The cardboard is sturdy, they have handles and a lid, and are just the right size for heavy books. You can usually get them free. Alas, the books that go in them are not.)

Book boxes

Black Swan is stuffed with a high quality selection of first and limited fine press editions, reading copies, and leather bound books. Don’t miss the rare book room, where the envy inducing books are locked behind glass. Not to worry, Michael would be glad to sell some to you.

Berry LarkspurAnd if you like Wendell Berry, Michael stocks one of the best selections of his books in the country, particularly of signed and limited editions. Since Wendell Berry writes faster than I can read, there’s often a volume available that had slipped through the cracks. This trip was no different as I found a Larkspur Press edition I somehow missed. As usual, I didn’t leave Black Swan empty handed.

If you find yourself in Lexington don’t miss a visit to Black Swan Books. It’s pretty much guaranteed to have something you’ll want.

Bookshelf 1



Leather Books

Berry photo 

Berry signing

Rare Book Room

Derby Day Is For Kentuckians

 Churchill Downs statue

I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby. I hope to go someday, but if I never do Derby Day will still be a special day. Someone stated that Derby Day is like St. Patrick’s Day for Kentuckians. I think this is right. It’s especially true for those of us in the Kentucky diaspora. Derby Day is Kentucky Day.

Derby PieOn the first Saturday in May the nation’s attention is focused on Kentucky. Southern staples like big hats and seersucker are encouraged. That can’t be a bad thing.

On years when my family has its act together we invite friends over for a Derby party. On years like this year (not having our act together), we at least pick a horse to root for and eat our homemade version of Derby Pie (not endorsed by Kern’s Bakery, owners of the copyright) and Kentucky Hot Brown (one of the world’s perfect foods). Derby Pie is a chocolate chip nut pie, made with pecans or walnuts. The Hot Brown is an open faced sandwich—developed at Louisville’s Brown Hotel—made with bread, turkey, ham, bacon, tomato, cheese and bechamel sauce. The highlight of the day is the singing of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”, greatest of state songs.

Hot Brown

That was Derby Day as celebrated in Alabama. As it happens, good friends Todd and Cherie had a chance to attend the Derby this year. With their kind permission, here are some of their pictures, including a couple from Friday’s Kentucky Oaks when the weather was much better.

Aristides Garden

Calvin Bore at the Oaks

And hats

Hat 1 Hat 2


Steffi Graf

Not all hats are as successful.

Derby Hat 3

Then there’s the seersucker.

Derby Seersucker

Oh, yes. And the horses.

Derby Horses Running

Tolkien’s Kentucky Hobbits

I have been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in anticipation of tomorrow’s movie release. When I first read There and Back Again thirty years ago as a boy in Kentucky the Shire seemed very far away. I would have loved to run into a round door in the side of one of the hills around my house.

One of the more interesting, and obscure, essays on the background of The Hobbit was written by the late Guy Davenport, and collected in his book The Geography of the Imagination. Davenport was a native of South Carolina, but spent most of his career as a professor at my alma mater, the University of Kentucky in Lexington. A Rhodes Scholar, and ultimately a genius certified by the MacArthur Foundation, Davenport is the sort of fellow who constantly exposes one’s own lack of knowledge and sophistication with every essay of his you read.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, Davenport had been a student of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. Davenport writes in his short essay “Hobbitry” that Tolkien was a “vague and incomprehensible lecturer” who “had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse and Welsh….How was I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’?”

But it was a chance encounter Davenport had in Shelbyville, Kentucky with a former classmate of Tolkien—a history teacher named Allen Barnett—that changed Davenport’s perspective about his former professor’s clever tales. To Davenport’s amazement, Barnett had no idea that Tolkien had turned into a writer, and had never read any of the adventures of Middle Earth.

“Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that,” Barnett told Davenport.

“And out the window I could see tobacco barns,” Davenport writes. “The charming anachronism of the Hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way….Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phonebook, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living.”

It is no surprise, then, that Wendell Berry, a friend and colleague of Davenport, writes hilariously about the adventures of fictional Kentucky farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot, not named after a hobbit, but rather the genuine country people of Kentucky.

When I first read Davenport’s “Hobbitry” twenty years ago I felt like the earth had moved. It was revolutionary! I had grown up around that tobacco and those tobacco barns.

New Zealand may provide the dramatic scenery for Peter Jackson’s movies, but it was the rolling hills and tobacco country of Kentucky that was the real backdrop for Tolkien’s Shire.

The Shire hadn’t been as far away as I thought.


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