The culinary trail you haven’t heard of
You can’t venture into the Bluegrass State without hearing about the Bourbon Trail. Louisville even has an Ale Trail that is making a name for itself. But there is a lesser-known culinary route that is also worth a trip through the Commonwealth: the Bon Appetit Kentucky Appalachia Trail. Founded eight years ago, the Appalachian Trail takes foodies to restaurants, farms, vineyards and more.
Foraging, farming, and the creative use of local ingredients are at the heart of Appalachian cuisine. In 2014, a Southern organization compiled a list of places where residents and visitors could sample authentic Kentucky mountain cuisine. “The idea behind Bon Appetit Appalachia was to bring tourism to the 14 member states that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC),” says Kimberly Clay, director of cultural heritage tourism at the Kentucky Department of Tourism.
She says the Trail was created at a time when consumers increasingly demanded distinctive local foods and that this increased interest has helped showcase the abundance and diversity of Appalachian food heritage, attracting visitors and support rural economic development. “The CRA has since removed the initiative, so it’s no longer a national trail,” she adds. “However, we have chosen to continue promoting the Trail and the sites we have identified.”
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Kimberly says the initial list of sites included nearly 300 food destinations on a printed guide, with as many as 650 sites on a companion website. Of those restaurants, local farms, farmers’ markets, wineries, craft breweries, and food festivals, 47 were Eastern Kentucky destinations. To be part of the Trail, each location had to meet at least two of the following criteria:
- Located within the borders of the Appalachian region
- Ready for tourism and offers a great tourist experience
- Makes a good faith effort to source locally as much as possible throughout the year
- Lists the names of farms and / or farmers who provide locally grown food on menus, notice boards, or other materials regularly viewed by customers
- Offers local beers and / or wines by name on the regular menu
- Participate in efforts to promote local food in the community, including farmer’s market demonstrations, local food workshops, speaking engagements, catering for events, etc.
- Systematically offers menu items or specials built around local and seasonal ingredients
- Offers unique culinary heritage experiences or events open to visitors
The project was particularly important to Kentucky because it inspired state organizations to promote culinary sites and destinations by creating additional culinary trails. Today, the Kentucky Appalachian Bon Appetit Trail features 16 farms, restaurants, wineries and more. The purpose of keeping the Trail alive, says Kimberly, is to “continue to show that the Appalachian counties have culinary experiences and attractions … like bottling Ale-8 in Winchester, [and] there are several sites in the Red River Gorge.
Featured destinations include Kristina’s Kitchen, a vegetarian bakery and cafe in Whitley City. “We are not native Appalachian cuisine,” says owner Kristina McFeeters. “The biggest thing that put us on the map is that, because we’re a plant-based restaurant, we use as much local produce as possible. It was kind of the idea behind the [Trail] … To encourage farm-to-table restaurants.
Kristina also hosts the local farmers market at her restaurant in the summer, buying any leftover produce from the farmers at the end of the day. “It helps the farmers not to go home empty-handed,” she says. “In the winter, when there isn’t as much local produce from the county, we start going to the surrounding counties and try to buy from any local farmer who has a high tunnel or greenhouse. Whatever local produce they can get, we use it, so we use local produce all year round.
She adds that in addition to a bakery and cafe, her establishment also has a small health food store with herbs and natural supplements. “We’re pretty much a health center in the community,” she says. “We love to take recipes from the Appalachians and make them healthy. You still get a lot of flavor, but without the guilt. “
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About 90 miles north of Kristina’s Kitchen is Snug Hollow Farm, a bed and breakfast in Irvine, another stop on the Bon Appetit Appalachia Kentucky Trail. “We have achieved a lot of notoriety through this program,” said owner Barbara Napier, adding that the Trail has provided good press to the local food scene. “Food is so important in eastern Kentucky,” she says, “[and] every time you talk to people about food you can’t go wrong.
Hailing from Eastern Kentucky herself, Barbara loves to cook and knows the ins and outs of Appalachian cuisine. His book, Snug Hollow Farm Cookbook: Hot Food and Warm Memories from Kentucky’s Unique and Genuinely Appalachian Bed and Breakfast, features a selection of dish recipes similar to what trail-goers will get a taste of when visiting Snug Hollow Farm.
Like Kristina’s dishes, many Barbara’s recipes are also vegetarian; she describes the meals as celebrations of the Kentucky harvest. They serve “Eastern Kentucky food,” she explains, “cornbread, beans, vegetables, and slowly fried chicken. We grow our food here, so a lot of things are pretty straightforward: cookies, gravy, and fried potatoes. “
Barbara adds that the trail offers visitors the chance to explore multiple aspects of all the great things Kentucky has to offer. “We are close to Berea,” she said. “It’s the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. And we’re close to the Red River Gorge and the Natural Bridge… it’s a beautiful place with lots of hiking and mountaineering.
The full list of Bon Appetit Appalachia Kentucky Trail destinations stretches from Lexington to Whitley City and can be found at kentuckytourism.com. “[People who are] discovering the Trail, it’s a treat, ”says Barbara. “The cuisine of the Kentucky Appalachians is delicious. It’s delicious and it’s wonderful… a slice of heaven, with food from heaven.
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