Sunday, August 17, 2008


Wouldn’t it be cool to leave a legacy that would be remembered for the ages? Do you think those people who invented all that stuff that we use today knew how important they’d become. People like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Fred K. Schmidt and the list goes on and on… sorry, what?… who?... Fred K. Schmidt? You’ve never heard of him? Well, let me catch you up.

Back in the early part of the last century, Fred Schmidt of Louisville, KY, was trying to expand the late night menu at the Brown Hotel. He and the other chefs settled on several creations. Particularly, two new sandwiches landed on the menu. One was called a Cold Brown that consisted of sliced chicken or turkey, boiled egg, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing served open faced on rye bread. Now that sounds a bit yummy to me but it wasn’t the hit a creative chef might search for. Fortunately, Fred was not a one trick pony (a little Derby humor, very subtle).

The Cold Brown had a fraternal twin. Schmidt took sliced turkey, typically reserved for holidays at the time, placed it open faced on a sandwich and covered it in Mornay sauce (a creamy white cheese sauce with a Béchamel base). Then he baked or broiled it until a bubbly gooey yumfest formed. Once topped with chopped pimento and bacon strips the Hot Brown was born. It is said that there was a time where 95% of all of the menu orders at the hotel restaurant were for the new Hot Brown hit. Today, the Hot Brown is a Kentucky tradition that has spread successfully through the south and beyond. So you never know where you might be when the perfect rendition of Chef Schmidt’s creation turns up.

This past week I visited Nashville Tennessee on business. At 4th and Broadway stands an old Nashville establishment called Merchants Restaurant. This place has a history of its own dating back to the 1870’s. Located in the heart of music row, the three story structure was nearly torn down in the 80’s but with a renaissance of the downtown district, this building survived. We lucked upon it on our way to pub crawl through this musical row. We stopped in to grab a quick bite and move on. It was not intended to be one of my culinary adventures but lucky for me it was. Originally a hotel, it held many businesses over the years including a soda shop and pharmacy. The downstairs bar has the original marble countertop and tile floors. The actual history is best summed up from their website:

“With the start of the Grand Ol’ Opry across the street at the Ryman in 1925, some notable folks started staying at the hotel: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Porter Waggoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Roy Acuff. Other notables included Will Rogers, Wild Bill Hickock and the James Boys (they shot someone on Broadway). As the years went by the quality of the hotel began to decline. In the Roaring Twenties it became a “speakeasy” and was affiliated with Al Capone. In the 1940’s it was a brothel. In the 70’s it became a honky-tonk and “dive” bar. By the 1980’s it was ready for the wrecking ball, but Ed Stolman and the Nashville Arts Commission saved it by having it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

Being in Tennessee, I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with a traditional and perfectly prepared Hot Brown but I was about to be pleasantly surprised. Even though the menu was quite eclectic my eyes seemed drawn to Mr. Schmidt’s creation. Soon I had before me the sinfully luscious sandwich. It looked exactly like a Hot Brown should. It was easy to tell this came straight from the oven because the little volcanic bubbles in the cheese sauce were prominent. There has been some evolution from the original Brown Hotel offering and to the best of my knowledge, there are only two requirements for most places to label their inspired creations Hot Browns. The sandwich needs to be served open faced and with a cheese sauce of sorts. This one followed the Louisville tradition pretty closely with the addition of sliced tomato that I’ve had in all the other Hot Browns I’ve had.

This sandwich is just delicious. The turkey meat is a perfect choice because it has no significant power in flavor. Instead it absorbs the richness of the sauce and acts as the canvas holding all of the elements together. The thick cut bacon lies atop the creamy Mornay bringing that great American flavor to this already wonderfully rich dish.

Perfectly satisfied, our night was just beginning. We enjoyed a few hours of live music in the bars of Broadway. I think I counted 5 bands. The all lady band had an original song worth noting. Singing about a poker game where she was working on a Royal Flush, the songs title reflects that she was so close but just One Jack Off. Another of the bands had a 14 year old lead guitarist who looked as though he was born with that guitar. He was phenomenal. Then there was the one with the blue grass feel complete with upright bass player and fiddle player rounding out the talented and yodeling quintet. I have to admit, if you asked me to accompany you to bars with this description, I would politely decline. It sounds rather unappealing to me. But any time your around folks having such a wonderful time, it rubs off. Plus the southern charm warms the environment nicely (the beer helps too).

If you are ever headed to the south, let their hospitality and welcoming nature lure you in. Being lost in kindness is never a bad thing. And look for that Louisville Hot Brown. Fred K. Schmidt’s legacy will live on.


Anonymous said...

Good old Great Grandpa Fred. The Schmidt Family will never forget him. I'm glad you found something to do in Nashville while you were hog-tied on the professional stuff :-)

Rebekah said...

We saw the Hot Browns on Throwdown with Bobby Flay and spent a very fun Friday evening at home preparing them. The variation that Bobby used that we also used was to serve the hotbrown on top of a savory french toast. Man were they good.