Greetings from South Shore - Kentucky, that is - home of Bennett’s Mill Farm and the Bennett's Mill Covered Bridge, built in 1855.
As I write this morning looking out a large picture window that frames the landscape, I can see the fog that has settled in this bottom land. Across the road lies one of the two gardens on the farm and up the road to my right is the beautiful old covered bridge that leads directly onto the farm.
Once more than 2,000 acres of bottom land and rolling hills, the main parcel now contains about 400 acres, with the AA highway and a county road taking a good part of the original land dividing the main farm from its timber land. About 200 acres was deeded to a cousin.
The land is also divided by Tygart Creek that flows into the Ohio River. Most of the time it is good fishing, but occasionally heavy rains drive it over its banks. On a hill towering about the bottom land is the Bennett/Secrest Cemetery, where all who once lived here keep vigil over the farm.
Living here in this peaceful valley is former Frankfort resident Fran Secrest Roberts, perhaps better known to many as “Mrs. Marlette” when she was a guidance counselor in the county schools and director of Wilkinson Street School.
Fran returned to the farm after her retirement to care for her mother and upon her death to run the farm. The farm passed through right of survivorship from its original owner B.F. Bennett ultimately to his great-great-great granddaughters Fran and her sister Kathryn Secrest Penkava.
Food brought me here
But what brought me here to this peaceful Mecca is food, of course, and the annual Dinner on the Bridge with enough cooking to last me for several months.
With 100 people coming for dinner, there is more work than can be imagined to get the farm gleaming for its showcase event that benefits the upkeep and care of the Bennett’s Mill Bridge and the Old Town Bridge, both located here in Greenup County.
So for the past 10 days, I have been immersed in everything from gardening, flower planting and gathering and of course, the actual preparation and cooking of the food for the dinner. How many green peppers and onions have you chopped this past week? Or how many heads of cabbage have you cut directly from the garden to go into cole slaw for the masses?
And lastly, how many grocery stores have you shopped to make sure you have everything you need, because you must understand this farm is a “fer piece,” from any grocery store and that necessity of having everything you need that I mentioned in my Memorial Day column is an imperative here.
Cookin’ up a storm
The menu is a yeoman’s task for this one woman’s show. This year my sides were watermelon salad, potato salad, bean salad, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese. All recipes I have borrowed from friends and most I have published in my columns.
For dessert, again mostly me, there is strawberry cake, apple stack cake, coca-cola cake, southern lemon chess pie and Kentucky bourbon cake.
The meat smoking this year belonged to Kim Roberts Frasure, daughter of Fran’s late husband Bill and now a second generation barbecue pit master.
Her part of the menu consisted of beef brisket, baby back ribs, chicken breast, bologna and of course, her family recipe of smoked baked beans.
Bologna or boloney, you might question. It along with saltine crackers and bowls of Fran’s home canned pickles were placed on every table for the guests to enjoy as appetizers. And if you have never eaten smoked bologna, you are missing a real treat.
Kim has become so adept at running the smoker that she and a friend have formed a catering team called Those Girls and are now doing what was her daddy’s dream of showcasing barbecue and other homemade food in these parts and run out of the massive kitchen he built and attached to the barn.
Their food has drawn rave reviews and most recently from members of the Ashland Alliance that honored their retiring director with a dinner provided by Those Girls. I love the name!
Not only do we cook and eat, but at some point every day there is conversation about food and recipes spill forth like pouring milk on cereal, especially from Fran’s neighbor, Wilma Fife.
Wilma is a fixture on the farm coming almost every day since her husband Ovie works here and has since he was a young man. And her plethora of knowledge on almost every subject you mention is dispensed definitively from medicine to the kitchen.
She is quick to tell you that she can’t tolerate people who “pity pat their self,” or are so slow to move, “it’s like getting a sow through a fence hose.” I didn’t ask what a fence hose was.
And while she has health problems of her own (I’ll spare you), it does not stop her from talking or showing up to “sit a spell,” which translates to all day in the kitchen at Fran’s, until Ovie is ready to go home.
Coming in one day carrying cabbage from the garden, Wilma asked me if I had ever had her buttered cabbage – “best you ever ate.”
Wilma’s Buttered Cabbage
Coarsely chop a large head of cabbage.
In a deep skillet or Dutch oven, put in a stick of butter and then the cabbage.
Turn on a stovetop burner to medium low. Don’t melt the butter beforehand.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pour in a cup of water.
Cover and cook until tender, about 45 minutes.
“Now pour this over some hot cornbread and you’ve got one delicious meal.”
But it’s Wilma’s Apple Stack Cake “that my momma always made,” that draws rave reviews and certainly would please any father or grandfather this Father’s Day weekend.
Apple Stack Cake
Peel and core about five or six pounds of Red Delicious or Rome Beauty apples. Put them in a heavy pan and cook on low heat, adding one cup of sugar, one teaspoon of cinnamon, ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and a pinch of ground cloves.
Once the apples are tender, remove from heat, let cool a bit and then pour them into a blender or use a potato masher to make a chunky applesauce; sit it aside.
Make a cake batter using four cups of self-rising flour, two cups of sugar, six eggs (lightly beaten), one cup of vegetable oil and one cup of milk along with a teaspoon of cinnamon, ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and a pinch of cloves.
Now here’s the tedious part.
Pour a thin layer of batter into a greased 10-inch iron skillet and place in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 15 to 18 minutes. Repeat until all layers are done. You should have four to six layers.
Or Wilma says if you don’t have a well-seasoned 10-inch iron skillet, use cake pans, floured and greased.
Once the first layer is ready to be removed from the skillet, spread a cup of the applesauce on a large cake plate (my suggestion – at least two inches bigger than the cake because the applesauce eventually will run all over the place) and then place the cake layer; repeat until all layers are stacked and end with applesauce on the top.
Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator at least a day.
But Wilma doesn’t stop here with this recipe; she talks about the cake her grandmother used to make.
Grandmother’s Blackberry Cake
Put three pounds of blackberries in a heavy pan along with a cup or maybe more of sugar; add one teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon nutmeg and a pinch of ground cloves (if you like them). Cook until blackberries are tender and juice is boiling.
Now make the same stack cakes in the aforementioned recipe and cook the same way.
But this time use a very-deep, wide bowl to layer the berries and the cakes.
Now get ready for this.
(“It’s what grandma called it,” Wilma says.)
Mix two beaten eggs, one half-gallon of milk and sugar to taste, at least a cup or more.
Pour the Sheep Dip over the blackberry stack cake. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.
And then came one last recipe, late one night, by phone.
“Got a pencil and paper,” she asked. “Write this down.”
Aunt Katie Horsley’s Doodle Cake
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
One can crushed pineapple not drained
2 teaspoons “sody”
½ teaspoon salt
Put all into a bowl and mix by hand.
Pour into a 13x9-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until done.
In a medium-sized saucepan, pour in one small can of Pet milk.
Add one stick of butter and 1 ¼ cups sugar and bring to a boil. Boil three minutes over medium heat.
Remove from heat and stir in one cup chopped walnuts and one cup coconut.
Pour hot mixture over warm cake and let sit until cooled.
The sun’s now up and has burned off the fog and it’s time for fresh vegetables from the garden to pack back to city life. There are the prettiest blue-green broccoli heads you’ve ever seen just ripe for the picking.
I truly hope you’ve had as much fun in the kitchen as I have these past 10 days. There is, for me, truly no better place to make these memories than to be once again on the farm.