The History of the Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich

In Louisville, Kentucky, there's only one sandwich: the hot brown.

Every region of the country has a sandwich that is unique to that area, and there's a great story behind every one of these American favorites. Maybe you're a fan of the Juicy Lucy or the St. Paul. Or perhaps you go for an Italian beef or a Sloppy Joe. But in Louisville, Kentucky, there's only one sandwich: the hot brown. And like every iconic sandwich, this comfort food creation is legendary.

What is a Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich?

The hot brown is an open-faced turkey sandwich (and yes, that still counts as a sandwich) topped with crispy bacon, tomato slices, and Mornay sauce, which is a roux-based bechamel with cheese added. The whole concoction is placed under a broiler so that the cheese sauce gets bubbly and brown, then served with another sprinkle of parmesan cheese and maybe another garnish for color. This is not a picnic sandwich; it's a meal.

The History of the Kentucky Hot Brown

The hot brown sandwich origin story has a couple of different versions, but they all go something like this. The Brown Hotel in Louisville was a popular place for dining and dancing in the 1920s. Over 1,200 people would visit the hotel each night, while the band played from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. When the band took a break around midnight, the dancers would head for the dining room to order a snack. A few years in, business started to drop off, though.

One version has it that Executive Chef Fred Schmidt was bored with making ham and scrambled eggs and club sandwiches, which was the standard midnight offering in the dining room. Another has it that the hotel asked patrons why more people weren't attending the dances and in response was told that people didn't like the offered food because it wasn't filling (especially during a night of dancing and drinking Kentucky bourbon).

So Schmidt created a hot, filling sandwich. It was winter, so turkey was readily available. Legend has it that the maitre d' pointed out that the thick slices of white bread, turkey, and Mornay sauce were all basically the same color, so the chef added two slices of bacon and pimentos on top for a splash of color and the Kentucky hot brown was born.

A few years later, tomatoes took the place of the pimentos. Since then, other iterations of the sandwich have popped up. The Brown Hotel still serves the original hot brown, but they've also added a miniature version and a vegetarian version. They sell about 1,000 of the sandwiches a week, but during the Kentucky Derby, that number jumps to about a thousand over three days.

Other restaurants have taken this Southern classic and put their own spin on it. You can find a brunch version, a pizza version, and a version served on a biscuit. In fact, Go to Louisville has a Hot Brown Hop on their website, with a list of all the local restaurants that serve hot brown.

If you want to try the original version (or something close to it—the hotel keeps the official Mornay sauce recipe a secret), you can find the sandwich recipe on their website. All of the ingredients are easy to find and make: Texas toast bread, turkey breast, Roma tomatoes, bacon, pecorino romano cheese, while the Mornay sauce is a butter and flour roux with heavy cream and whole milk.

This post was originally published on Jul 19, 2019.

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