Why you should care
Because the hot brown is a palate pleaser and a heart stopper.
In the 1920s, the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville was famous for its raucous dance parties, the kind of rip-roaring affairs that would leave flappers and sheikhs begging for a bite to eat after a long night of doing the Charleston. The hotel obliged, serving up heaping helpings of whatever lay around at one in the morning. Usually ham and eggs. But it didn’t take long for patrons to tire of the limited menu, and chef Fred Schmidt responded with a flash of brilliance that resulted in one of the most satisfying and iconic sandwiches in American history.
He called it the hot brown, after its temperature and its home, and the open-faced sandwich was an immediate success. Ninety years after its creation, the hot brown is a legend, a status made clear both by its spread to menus all around the world and the local obsession with cooking up unique variations on the sandwich, such as the “not brown.” Nearly a century later, though, there’s still nothing like the original, which chef Schmidt is said to have cobbled together with whatever he could find in his kitchen.
The bacon is crisp. The bread is gooey. The turkey is smoky.
“I think he kind of had an idea of what he was doing,” jokes Brown Hotel executive chef Josh Bettis, who makes the sandwich the same way it was made 90 years ago. It begins with Texas toast laid in a ceramic dish and topped with chunks of roasted turkey, tomato quarters and enough Mornay sauce to make it look like soup. The whole thing then goes under the broiler to ensure that, as its name implies, it’s both hot and brown. The sandwich is finished off with bacon, chives, Parmesan cheese and paprika, before landing on dining tables with a thud and a warning: “Be careful, it’s hot,” Bettis tells me.
As I begin to eat my sandwich with a fork and knife — no one’s picking this thing up — he describes what I’m tasting. “You get the fat from the cheese and creamy Mornay, the smoky bacon and acid from the tomato that cuts right through. The crunch from the toast, a little more smoke from the paprika; put it all together and you’ve got something special,” Bettis says.
As I eat, Bettis talks. He tells me about the journalists from around the world who regularly pass through, and how at Derby time he’s called upon to do something new and interesting with the city’s most famous sandwich, like make a spring roll version. I ask about the calories. “Twenty-two hundred,” he says, and then tells me about a man in his 60s who’s “skinny as a rail” and comes into the hotel every few months to tear into two hot browns at once.
I couldn’t even finish one. This sandwich is a marvel that forces diners to consider each bite and prioritize their preferred ingredients. Finishing the whole thing, for a mere mortal, is no option. The bacon is crisp. The bread is gooey. The turkey is smoky. But to my mouth, the best part of the sandwich is the Mornay, which covers everything, imparting its rich nuttiness. When eating the hot brown, the best strategy is to follow the sauce. Eat all that it touches, and once it’s gone, stop.