You can’t venture to the Bluegrass State without hearing talk of the Bourbon Trail. Louisville’s even got an Ale Trail that’s making quite the name for itself. But there’s a lesser-known culinary route that’s also worth a trip through the commonwealth: The Bon Appetit Kentucky Appalachia Trail. Founded eight years ago, the Appalachian path takes foodies to one-of-a-kind restaurants, farms, wineries, and more.
Foraging, farming, and making creative use of local ingredients are all at the heart of Appalachian food, and in 2014, a Southern organization assembled a list of places where residents and visitors alike could get a taste of authentic Kentucky mountain cuisine. “The idea behind Bon Appetit Appalachia was to bring tourism into the 14 member states that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC),” explains Kimberly Clay, Director of Cultural Heritage Tourism at the Kentucky Department of Tourism.
She says the Trail was created during a time when there was a growing demand from consumers for distinctive local food, and the increased interest provided an opportunity to showcase the abundance and diversity of Appalachia’s food heritage, attract visitors, and support rural economic development. “The ARC has since deleted the initiative, so it’s no longer a national Trail,” she adds. “However, we chose to continue to promote the Trail and the sites that we identified.”
Kimberly says that the initial list of sites included nearly 300 food destinations on a printed guide, with a whopping 650 sites on an accompanying website. Of these restaurants, local farms, farmers’ markets, wineries, craft breweries, and food festivals, 47 were Eastern Kentucky destinations. To be part of the Trail, each spot was required to meet at least two of the following criteria:
- Located within the borders of the Appalachian Region
- Tourist-ready and offers a great tourist experience
- Makes a good-faith effort to source locally as much as possible on a year-round basis
- Lists names of farms and/or farmers who supply locally grown foods on menus, display boards, or other literature regularly seen by patrons
- Offers local beers and/or wines by name on the regular menu
- Participates in efforts to promote local foods in the community, including farmers’ market demonstrations, local food workshops, speaking engagements, catering for events, etc.
- Consistently carries menu items or offers specials built around local, seasonal ingredients
- Offers unique culinary heritage experiences or events open to visitors
The project was especially significant for Kentucky because it inspired state organizations to promote culinary sites and destinations by creating additional culinary trails. Today, the Bon Appetit Appalachia Kentucky Trail includes 16 farms, restaurants, wineries, and more. The purpose of keeping the Trail alive, Kimberly says, is “to continue to show that the Appalachian counties have culinary experiences and attractions … like Ale-8 Bottling in Winchester, [and] there are several sites in Red River Gorge.”
Among the featured destinations is Kristina’s Kitchen, a vegetarian bakery and café in Whitley City. “We are not native Appalachian cuisine,” says owner Kristina McFeeters. “The biggest thing that put us on the map is, because we are a plant-based restaurant, we use as much local produce as possible. That was kind of the idea behind the [Trail] … to encourage farm-to-table-type restaurants.”
Kristina also hosts the local farmers’ market at her eatery in the summertime, purchasing all remaining produce from the farmers at the end of the day. “It helps the farmers not go home empty-handed,” she says. “In the wintertime, when there isn’t as much local county produce, we start going to surrounding counties and try to buy from any local farmer that has a high tunnel or greenhouse. Whatever local produce they can get, we use it — so we use local produce all year long.”
She adds that in addition to a bakery and café, her establishment also has a small health food store with herbs and natural supplements. “We’re pretty much a center for health in the community,” she says. “We like to take Appalachian recipes and make them healthy. You still get a lot of the flavor, but guilt-free.”
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 got a lot of notoriety from that program,” says owner Barbara Napier, adding that the Trail has provided good press for the local culinary scene. “Food is so important in Eastern Kentucky,” she says, “[and] anytime you talk to people about food, you can’t go wrong.”
An Eastern Kentucky native herself, Barbara loves to cook and knows the ins and outs of Appalachian cuisine. Her book, Snug Hollow Farm Cookbook: Hot Food and Warm Memories from Kentucky’s Unique and Authentically Appalachian Bed and Breakfast, provides a selection of recipes for dishes much like the ones Trail-goers will get a taste of when visiting Snug Hollow Farm.
Like Kristina’s dishes, Barbara’s recipes are also vegetarian; she describes the meals as celebrations of the harvest of Kentucky. They serve “Eastern Kentucky food,” she explains, “cornbread, and beans, and vegetables, and the like. We grow our food here, so a lot is pretty straightforward: biscuits, and gravy, and fried potatoes.”
Barbara adds that the Trail provides visitors with opportunities to explore multiple aspects of all the great things Kentucky has to offer. “We’re close to Berea,” she says. “That’s Kentucky’s arts and crafts capital. And we’re close to Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge … it’s a beautiful place with lots of hiking and mountain climbing.”
The complete list of Bon Appetit Appalachia Kentucky Trail destinations spans from Lexington down to Whitley City and can be found on kentuckytourism.com. “[People who are] checking out the Trail are in for a treat,” Barbara says. “Kentucky Appalachian food is delightful. It’s delicious and it’s wonderful … a piece of heaven, with food from heaven.”
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