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    Eat & Swig

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    An earlier version of this story originally appeared in our July 2016 issue. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here

     

    There is no good day to find out how many Hot Browns you can eat, so I choose today. The day I have to wipe pus out of my infected cat, the day a 90-degree temperature ovens my air-conditionless car, I head to the Brown Hotel to get down. Just outside the glittering door to J. Graham’s Cafe: a mirror, somehow hanging on the smooth marble walls, gold frame twisting like tree limbs around my pasty face.

    I look into my eyes, cold blues that have seen the destruction of a great many daunting dishes — chowders, stews, once a comically made (but laboriously eaten) deep-fried Hamburger Helper burger — and mutter: I can do this.

    A standing banner next to the door explains what “this” is: THE Hot Brown, created right here in the ’20s to sate the wee-hours hankerings of depleted dancers. Apparently they wanted a cheesy, white sauce-soaked, soggy-breaded abomination of catastrophic gastrointestinal proportions after a night of Chattanooga Choo-Chooing. I’m just hoping to chew through a few without melting into Mornay.

    The host smiles, beige as his blazer, asks, “Breakfast or lunch?” It doesn’t matter: More than nine decades after its genesis, the Hot Brown commands such a following that the Brown serves it all day. The clock does not govern the Hot Brown. It stands strong as a statue, despite constantly melting.

    My brave friend Hannah agreed to accompany me, partly out of interest in the dish, partly out of interest in preserving my health, though I suspect the former holds more influence over their decision as they order a coffee to start. Coffee? Before a Hot Brown? I take it as a challenge and order a mug of my own, tip the little porcelain bottle of cream into the brown, white ribbons of liquid lazing into the drink like saliva into a toilet bowl.

    Out they come in shallow white skillets atop simple square plates, cheese sauce bubbling a color I recognize from the vet’s office. “These just came from the oven,” the waiter says, tapping my plate with his fingertips, “so they’re probably really cold.” I manage a laugh. “Really,” he says, “the skillet might be 400 degrees.”

    Only two toasty triangles of bread are visible above the moat of creamy white Mornay, which glazes a tender, moist hunk of turkey, quarters of tomatoes on either side like kidneys. Two strips of bacon form a vaulted ceiling, powdered in Parmesan snow. I put a hand on my stomach like a threat; This is beautiful and I want to eat it, I think to my gut.

    But eating it proves difficult. Hannah and I knife around our plates, leaving the Hot Browns blown apart like strip-mined mountains. It’s impossible to taste every flavor in one bite, and who wants to eat tomato, just tomato? “This is plated artistically to the detriment of the eating experience,” Hannah says, their fork like a novice ice skater on the plate. Hannah prefers the Hot Browns on the Brown’s buffet line at lunchtime, all melted together in a big container of sauce, a cohesive dish compared to the striated mess before us. “Still,” I say, “this is probably the best turkey I’ve ever had.”

    “Yeah,” Hannah says. They peers into their food. “What I love about the Hot Brown is the slow mush into the bread.”

    That mush is a divisive attribute. Everyone I talk to about this story either lights up, makes recommendations — make sure it’s real bacon, real tomatoes, real turkey — or audibly gags. My closest guess at what divides people on Hot Browns is the texture: Some of us like to sop things up with bread; some of us think sop is a word best relegated to kitchen sanitization.

    We fork up our last bites of turkey. My stomach broods at this first meal of the day but remains dormant. A crooner pipes through an unseen speaker: Love, love, love

     

    Wild Eggs downtown is like a joke that goes on too long. The shelves topped with eggs up front: fine. The wide-open industrial space, windows huge enough to hang-glide through, brick walls pastel yellow: fine. The round lights hanging, glowing golden orange; the egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers; the photos on the walls of eggs arranged into flowers, eggs with orange peels, eggs on eggs on eggs: Come on. It’s beautiful; it’s annoying. Or, to be fair: I’m already too full, and everything is annoying. This yolk of a restaurant had a two-hour wait for brunch earlier, the line snaking halfway down the block one Saturday. It’s 1:51, only a couple hours from close, and still most tables seat young professionals, women in leopard-print dresses, men with satchels.

    But the Kelsey Kentucky Brown is so damn good I forget where I am, who I am, how much I can conceivably eat in one day. The layering perfect: bread on bottom, then bacon, then several slices of turkey seared at the edges, then a sizzling coating of Mornay and cheese, then the only egg here I can stand, over-easy and gorgeous beneath a confetti of diced tomatoes and paprika. When I cut into it, yolk butters down the sandwich. Hannah says they wishes they’d ordered one, fingers up some cheese. Our skepticism of the dish that recently won best Hot Brown from a USA Today readers’ poll steams away.

    Inside me, sauce rises.

     

    By the time we get to the Bristol on Bardstown Road, I’m certain vultures are following me. Sweat runs into my eyes and my stomach inspires the word “curdled,” but I say nothing to Hannah, afraid I’m just delirious. After all, Hot Browns inspire delirium. What else could lead to more than 40 restaurants serving Hot Browns? To mini-Hot Browns at every single Derby party? To four or five local joints slinging Hot Brown pizza? To recipes for Hot Brown quiche in Garden & Gun? To “Italian” Hot Browns smothered in Alfredo sauce at the Come Back Inn in Germantown? To an horrific list of online recipes for Hot Brown casserole? Call it a fun twist on tradition. I call it crazy that anyone would want a Hot Brown pizza.

    But probably not as crazy as a third Hot Brown in one day, this one served in a gravy boat, completely submerged in Mornay, God help me. An old record of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan blows a cool lament through the dark restaurant. Black walls so full of bad paintings of Derby horses I can smell the dung, except there is no dung, only me, slick with sweat and close to overflowing.

    I get it down. I get the hell out. 

     

    No, I don’t need a menu, just a Hot Brown. No, no drinks, just the Hot Brown. My fourth Hot Brown. If I weren’t so weighted with turkey I’d tackle the server just to keep from eating another Hot Brown. Upstairs at Gary’s on Spring, surrounded by bald men and wrinkled women who smell like baths of lotion, I’m going to eat another Hot Brown. Paintings of wine hanging on brick walls taunt me with their expectedness, because who could expect anyone to eat four Hot Browns? There it is, almost a slider version of the dish, four little mounds of Hot Brown. With Hannah already Hot Browned out, I make my roommate, Micah, eat two of them. He says he likes it, that the turkey isn’t dry like turkey gets, and me, I’m eating my fourth Hot Brown, and it’s a Hot Brown, and what do you want from me? I’m praying for the cessation of my own existence, but I’m still here.

     

    Thank God almighty it’s not here anymore. The doorman at Zanzabar says the mythical Hot Brown mac n’ cheese skillet I’ve read about in shadowy corners of the internet has been removed. He leads me past the arcade, young women sipping beer at the bar. About 7:30, plenty of time before the bands go on. Doorman puts a golden vinyl record sleeve into my hands. It falls open into a menu, food items listed under “Player 1,” “Player 2,” and my inner arcade-loving kid grins, quickly remembers his youthful difficulty with motion sickness, and takes a few slow, deep breaths. I run my finger down the page, my stomach inflating as I read dish after dish. Hot Brown, Hot Brown, Hot Brown? Nope. I drop the menu right there on the bar and head out into the bright evening. A breeze like the back of my mother’s hand on my feverish forehead. The doorman comes out behind me, asks if I found what I was looking for. I choke back a gag and tell him yes, I’ve got all I need and more.

    This originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find you very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a poet, essayist and journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine. His narrative journalism has earned him first-place awards in feature writing and profile reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2015, Sarabande Books awarded him the Flo Gault Poetry Prize. His poems will appear in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and The Collagist this summer.

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