Benedictine or Benedictine Spread is a condiment made with cucumbers, onions and cream cheese. It is used to make cucumber sandwiches and was invented around the turn of the 20th century by Jennie Carter Benedict, a caterer and restaurateur in Louisville, Kentucky. Benedict opened her restaurant in 1893. It was there that she invented and originally served benedictine. Originally used for sandwiches, benedictine has in recent years been used as a dip for chips and filling for potatoes.
“Louisvillians quiz guests and younger family members on the origin of Benedictine. The famous cucumber spread was, of course, created by one of our city’s most famous residents, Jennie C. Benedict. Setting the highest of culinary standards, “Miss Jennie” was also a successful businesswoman, a writer who for a time served as editor of The Courier-Journal’s Household section, and an important community volunteer.
The University Press of Kentucky has republished Jennie Benedict’s The Blue Ribbon Cook Book, from the fourth edition, 1922.” Susan Reigler, former restaurant critic and travel editor of The C-J, has written the Introduction, and for the first time the recipe for Benedictine Spread is published. The wonder is that it was never included in the other five editions, or in Benedict’s autobiography. Maybe she considered her recipe as secret as Colonel Sanders did his herbs and spices for chicken.
Reigler writes lovingly of her own youth when young ladies wore white gloves and munched cream cheese-and-nut sandwiches, based on Benedict’s concoction, in the restaurant of the old Stewart’s Dry Goods department store. She recounts the influence of recipes on today’s restaurants and home cooks as well.
A close variation of Miss Jennie’s “Stuffed Eggplant” has been on the menu of Simpsonville’s Old Stone Inn for many years. Louisville’s Kathy Cary at Lilly’s serves her own version of Benedictine, as do Chef Matt Weber at the Uptown Café, and Ouita Michel at Holly Hill Inn in Midway. Holly Hill’s sous-chef, Lisa Laufer, supplies her recipe for this book.
Reigler gives an interesting picture of the woman who, in 1893, started a catering business from her home. Benedict soon began defining Louisville’s tastes as she catered parties and weddings of its most prominent citizens and fed the middle class in her tearooms.
Miss Jennie’s menus became musts for Derby Day celebrations. Through the decades her cookbook remains popular. Reigler says, “I had many, many calls from readers trying to locate a copy. …”
The Blue Ribbon Cook Book contains a Glossary that is a cooking lesson in itself. The large sections on “Entrees” and “Desserts” are complemented by interesting advice in “Sick Room Cookery,” and practical kitchen tricks.
Probably the most intriguing recipe of all is that which keeps Miss Jennie’s name on Louisville lips. Here is the version supplied by cookbook author and former Courier-Journal food editor Ronni Lundy. It is the one that Jennie C. Benedict would most likely have included in her book:
· 8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
· 3 tablespoons cucumber juice
· 1 tablespoon onion juice
· 1 teaspoon salt
· a few grains of cayenne pepper
· 2 drops green food coloring
To get the juice, peel and grate a cucumber, then wrap in a clean dish towel and squeeze juice into a dish. Discard pulp. Do the same for the onion. Mix all ingredients with a fork until well blended. Using a blender will make the spread too runny.”
(Above) The interior of Jennie Benedict’s restaurant at 554 S. Fourth Street in downtown Louisville. The establishment opened in 1900 and was sold in 1925 for $50,000. Benedict was trained in New York by Fanny Farmer.
Weekend Edition Saturday Transcript:
Cream cheese, cucumber juice and a touch of onion. That may sound like an unlikely combination, but Benedictine is a Kentucky favorite. Gwynne Potts, a self-proclaimed aficionado, says it’s delicious.
“The best thing to eat Benedictine on is just white bread,” Potts says. “No special bread; it only takes away from the Benedictine.”
Potts, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., has been enjoying the creamy combo for six decades. And for the first 18 years of her life, she says, Benedictine was like ketchup. She assumed it was eaten everywhere until, as a college student, she took a spring break trip to Florida.
“We couldn’t imagine having lunch without Benedictine,” Potts says. “We went from store to store, saying, ‘Where’s your Benedictine?’ And they just looked at us. It was the first time I realized the whole world didn’t know about Benedictine.”
Years later, that’s still pretty much the case. But this creamy, cool cucumber spread has persisted in Kentucky ever since Jennie Benedict, a famous Louisville caterer, invented it around the turn of the 20th century.
Benedict opened a tearoom on downtown Louisville’s South Fourth Street in 1911. Back then, that was the city’s bustling commercial center, packed with stores, cafes, theaters and hotels. Today, it’s a few boutiques and several wig shops.
Susan Reigler, a former restaurant critic for Louisville’s newspaper, The Courier-Journal, wrote the introduction to the re-release of Benedict’s Blue Ribbon Cook Book in 2008. Reigler says Benedict’s role in the city’s culinary history was huge and that the roots of many of the city’s flavors can be traced back to her recipes.
Of course, some of Benedict’s concoctions have fallen out of favor — like calf brains and peptonized oysters for the sick. But Reigler says Benedictine has endured.
“I think it’s just very different. It’s very refreshing. It’s a light spread,” she says. “What could be more light and delicate than cucumber juice?”
One source of contention among Louisville chefs is whether to include the two drops of green food coloring that Benedict used in her recipe. The dye lets people know that it’s not just a plain cream cheese spread, but the practice is no longer popular with chefs like Kathy Cary, who prefer more natural ingredients. Cary has owned Lilly’s, a restaurant that specializes in Kentucky cuisine, for the past 25 years. For her, the dish is truly a way to showcase both local cucumbers and local traditions.
“Mine is really about … celebrating the cucumbers,” Cary says. “Obviously, no dye, no food coloring. And it’s filled with texture, and sort of the crunch of the cucumbers.”
Some cooks serve Benedictine as a dip, others as tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off. But Cary usually puts hers into a hearty sandwich with homemade mayonnaise, bacon, bibb lettuce and sprouts.
However you serve it, Benedictine is best accompanied with another Kentucky signature: bourbon.