The backstory on Benedictine, a Derby-adjacent sandwich spread
This story about a sandwich spread has its roots in Louisville.
But first, a trip to Midway’s Holly Hill Inn, where Benedictine is a staple on the menu here this time of year.
“It's a lovely spring spread,” Chef Ouita Michel says. “We serve it every Sunday here, with our own smoked salmon and homemade English muffins… and poached eggs and Hollandaise.”
Michel says she’s made Benedictine since the day she and her husband opened the restaurant in 2001.
A mix of cream cheese and cucumbers, Benedictine has become a favorite of Derby parties, and it's truly Kentucky fare.
A Louisvillian named Jennie C. Benedict invented the cucumber-cream-cheese concoction around the early 20th century. It’s most often used as a sandwich spread, sometimes with fresh cucumber or bacon. It can also be served as a dip.
Chef Michel thinks the recipe has endured all these years, and stayed a Derby favorite, because it’s simple, refreshing and you can make it ahead.
Making Benedictine for Derby and all summer long
For a hearty batch of Benedictine, she uses one and half pounds of cream cheese and several English cucumbers. And while some recipes call for green food coloring, Chef Michel has her own technique to give it that distinct hue.
“When you peel your cucumbers, if you leave a little bit of the skin on. just a smidge, that helps a little bit what's giving it a faint green color,” she says.
After the cucumbers are chopped up in the food processor, Michel uses a cheesecloth to squeeze all of the juice out of them.
The cucumber pulp will go back into the food processor with the cream cheese, a few drops of hot sauce and a teaspoon of onion juice.
“Of course, in Jennie Benedict's day, there was no food processor,” Michel says.
She envisions Benedict whipping up her Benedictine with a wooden spoon and big bowl.
“I bet she beat the hell out of it,” she says with a laugh.
Michel says, with cucumber season around the corner, it’s something she loves to make all summer long.
The woman behind Benedictine
Jennie Benedict was born in Louisville in 1860, and showed a knack for cooking from a young age. Her grandmother nurtured that talent.
"I am confident my Grandmother's interest, encouragement and co-operation inspired me to 'carry on' as the years passed," Benedict wrote in her autobiography.
She opened her first culinary business in the 1890s, “a little kitchen built in the backyard of her family's home,” says Jana Meyer, associate curator of collections at the Filson Historical Society.
Meyer researched and curated a section on Benedict as part of the Filson’s “Women at Work” exhibition.
“They had a red pushcart that they would load up with food… and then they would take it and sell it to schoolchildren,” Meyer says of Benedict’s initial foray into the catering and culinary industry.
Soon Benedict was writing for the Courier Journal’s Household Department.
She moved her backyard operation downtown, eventually expanding to a restaurant on Fourth Street. Benedict’s became a beloved community gathering spot.
“I think for that generation that was a special restaurant,” Meyer says.
And with culinary success under her belt, Benedict released her famous “Blue Ribbon Cook Book, packed with recipes like lamb chops, corn pudding and chicken salad.
“It was really, really popular,” Meyer says. “She published multiple editions.”
“I have tried to give the young housekeeper just what she needs, and for more experienced ones, the best that can be had in the culinary art,” Benedict wrote in the book’s preface.
The restaurateur did not include Benedictine in her early editions – though it was added to later ones. There’s not much documentation of how she invented it and why it’s become so intertwined with Derby. That’s left some to speculate, including chef Ouita Michel.
“Jennie had a fabulous tea room,” Michel says. “Her clients went to that tea room, they had her Benedictine and cucumber sandwiches. People ate it and loved it. It became a staple in her catering menu, and she was the main caterer in Louisville.”
So one theory is that Jennie Benedict likely catered her fair share of Derby parties.
However it happened, Chef Michel says she’s grateful she gets to be a part of the story now.
“[I’ve] got 400 people from a horse event coming, and they're gonna have been Benedictine today. So that's pretty cool.”