By JL Hoke
There’s nothing complex about Benedictine spread. It’s cucumbers and cream cheese, essentially. Not even solid cucumber, in some cases….just the juice. Often, there’s food coloring. So what elevates this simple concoction to a Western Kentucky must-have? Like the ubiquitous mint julep, this green sandwich filling is served with pride, and distinctly Kentuckian. But what is its appeal?
My neighbor Marietta, age 89 and a Kentucky native, says, “It’s good. It’s nothing. If you can stand to eat nothing, it’s fine. Just thin as a razor blade, a little bit of green.” Marietta is an accomplished cook, but admits she has never taken the initiative to make Benedictine.
Benedictine was formulated in Louisville, Ky., by the late 19th-century caterer, restaurateur and cookbook author Jennie Carter Benedict, who trained at the Boston Cooking School under culinary legend Fannie Farmer. Jennie served Benedictine in her tea room – Benedict’s – but never published the recipe. A 2008 re-release of her most successful book, “The Blue Ribbon Cookbook,” did include it. According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, Jennie may have thought the recipe was “too boring to include.”
During my conversation with Marietta – before I learned about Jennie attending the BCS – she directed me to a cabinet in her sitting room. “Get that big book out,” she said. “We’ll look for the recipe.” It was the “Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.” Marietta had also attended the school. Fannie had many recipes for cream cheese-based spreads in that book. Benedictine was not among them. Maybe she thought it was boring, too.
The recipe was originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal as follows:
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
3 tbsps. cucumber juice
1 tbsp. onion juice
1 tsp. salt
A few grains cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring
Blend all ingredients with a fork.
Modern recipes tend to call for grated cucumber and onion, and with the current aversion to artificial ingredients, often omit the food coloring, opting to get some green from cucumber skin, scallions or maybe spinach. They also prefer a food processor over a fork.
Benedictine is considered party food, served at brunches and weddings and teas, and really comes out of hibernation during Louisville’s grandest event, the Kentucky Derby. It’s enjoyed dainty finger-sandwich style, usually on white bread – no crusts, please – stacked on pretty trays alongside pimento-cheese sandwiches and lemon bars and such. If there’s Benedictine, it’s an “occasion.” It’s also served standard-size sandwich-style in delis, but if so, it’s almost ALWAYS paired with bacon. It really does need crispy slabs of pork in order to become a meal. Packaged versions turn up on grocery shelves in the city now and then, but you don’t want those. I mean, you REALLY don’t want those.
So, what’s all the fuss about some cream cheese and a bit of vegetable?
It wasn’t until I spoke with Marguerite Schadt that I started to understand Benedictine’s importance. She and her husband, Dan, operate Heitzman Traditional Bakery and Deli in Louisville, which has been in business locally for 125 years. The topic of Benedictine really lit her up. “Benedictine is a staple when you talk (the Kentucky) Derby or think of Louisville! It has been around for four generations. Our family has been making Benedictine since 1891. When my mother, Mary Agnes Heitzman, did a catering event, she ALWAYS had heart-shaped Benedictine finger sandwiches. She always catered to the customers with her own flair, and today, I, walking in her footsteps, am doing the same thing,” she said.
She continued, “This luscious spread of cream cheese, cucumbers, hot sauce and a little secret has been a tradition that we still use today in that recipe. …. We serve 20 pounds a week, and at Derby time, we sell 200 pounds.”
Heitzman’s serves its food-coloring-free Benedictine as a sandwich with crispy bacon on scrumptious house-baked breads, and as a dip. And that’s one tasty sandwich. It seems that the key to good Benedictine is a scoop of enthusiasm, a pinch of love and a whole lot of tradition – green food coloring optional.
I’ve lived in Louisville for seven years. I’m from the Midwest, and always considered Lou to be far more Midwestern than Southern. But the way the city clings to its traditions – especially its culinary ones – is very “under the Mason-Dixon line.” Hot Browns, mint juleps and yes, the humble Benedictine, are Louisville, Kentucky, at its most Southern.
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Got a favorite guilty pleasure or copycat recipe? Drop JL a note at our inbox, email@example.com.