Dinner… and all that jazz

Color me awed. Last night, I discovered that the Gennett Mansion, a majestic historic Main Street home in my hometown of Richmond, Ind. hosts a series of absolutely awesome gourmet farm-to-table dinners. I don’t technically live there anymore, but I get back often enough. Seriously, how could I have not known about this before now?!? This was without a doubt the best food I’ve ever eaten in Richmond, and right up there with some of the best food I’ve eaten lately, period.

Richmond’s historic Gennett Mansion


Here’s the skinny: the highly hospitable Donna and Bob Geddes currently own the Gennett Mansion and live on the third floor. This Colonial Revival mansion was originally built in 1897 as the home of Henry and Alice Gennett, who lived in the house with their family for nearly 40 years. Scratch the surface of Richmond history and you’ll uncover a whole slew of information about the Gennetts and their musical legacy — the family manufactured pianos and later paved the way for new recording technology of their era. Some of the most prominent jazz, blues, gospel and country artists of the early 20th century played and recorded right here in Richmond, including Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and Gene Autry. The Gennett Mansion is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Indiana Landmark.


I must have driven past the Gennett Mansion on Main Street a million times over the years without ever thinking too much about it, to be honest. The building used to house offices; I can recall calling on someone there when I was an advertising account executive for the local newspaper back in the early 1990s. Since taking possession of the property in 2006, the Geddes have painstakingly been restoring it to renewed levels of grandeur. Their efforts have paid off handsomely, and Donna and Bob generously open the mansion for tours, weddings, live music concerts, private parties, corporate events and farm-to-table dinners like the one my dad and I had the pleasure of attending last night.

And what a dinner this was. The Geddes collaborate with the talented Chef Jen Ferrell (who in a small-world twist is married to the grandson of my former orthodontist) to create sumptuous menus for these meals featuring locally sourced organic products. Jen grew up in Brown County, earned a degree in environmental management from Indiana University before later easing her way into a cooking career as a personal chef and caterer. She moved to Richmond eight years ago when her husband took a job with Earlham College.

one of the Gennett Mansion dining rooms

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and had a chance to settle in and snoop around the house before dinner began. Everything was gorgeous, from the fresh daisy centerpieces to the polished woodwork. The architecture and interior design alone is reason enough to come here. There’s a beautiful Starr piano standing in the main hall, a gleaming wood staircase and elegant furnishings throughout. Our dining room (one of several) was decked out with a cross-beamed ceiling, bowed windows and a fireplace large enough to stand in. It was fun to see how the rich and famous of Richmond must have lived back in the early 1900s.

There were nearly 20 guests for dinner last night, although Donna said they can accommodate up to 40. Donna and Bob did all the serving themselves, and I spied only Chef Jen in the kitchen. This was an ambitious undertaking for just three people to pull off, and they did so flawlessly.

braised bison with polenta and red pepper sauce

Our first course set the tone for what was to come with a triangular polenta cake and braised local bison from a farm up between Lynn and Winchester, all topped with a roasted red pepper paprika sauce. The bison was flavorful and tender, and the corn cake light, fluffy and steaming hot. Yum.

mixed greens with shaved radishes and white chocolate vinaigrette

Next up was a salad of greens from the chef’s very own garden — a mix of torn romaine lettuce, spinach and bok choy with a few shaved purple radish slices on top and a sprinkle of almonds. I’m not crazy about radishes, but these were light, peppery and tasty. The dressing was a white chocolate citrus vinaigrette, which has got to be one of the more unusual combinations I’ve ever tasted. It was really different and delicious; the white chocolate was not at all overpowering, just an interesting and subtle flavor note in the overall fresh mix of ingredients.

mint julep sorbet

To cleanse our palates after the salad, we each received a small glass dish of mint julep sorbet. We’ve been on a big bourbon kick in my house as of late, and this was right up my alley. Made with fresh mint and top-shelf Kentucky bourbon and garnished with a single pink rose petal, it was as tasty for the eyes as it was the mouth. I drank a couple of mint juleps during a tour of Churchill Downs earlier last month and they were cloyingly sweet, but as a little icy treat, the recipe worked perfectly. I even stirred a bit into my iced tea to give it a slight minty kick. Big, big fan of this.

beef croustade

The main course was the real showstopper – beef croustade with roasted asparagus. Here’s the breakdown: take a tender piece of local steak, top it with porter roasted onions and gorgonzola cheese, then wrap the whole thing in phyllo dough like a little beggar’s purse and bake. Oh. My. Goodness. I was so excited to eat this, I forgot all about taking pictures until after I’d already cut in and had to rearrange my plate to get the shot. It was soooooo delicious, like a beef Wellington with phyllo instead of puff pastry. I thought my dad’s eyes were going to roll back in his head, he was so happy when he took a bite of this. The asparagus on the side was perfectly tender. We also received a small basket of fragrant rosemary yeast rolls and a compound herb butter to spread on top.

coffee and all the trappings

Prior to bringing out the dessert, Donna served some wonderful coffee she’d brought back from a recent trip to Costa Rica (in addition to her Gennett responsibilities, she also works as an international flight attendant!), along with a cute trio of accoutrement to dude up our cups. What a whimsical idea to stir in raw sugar, chocolate chips and fresh whipped cream!

sour cherry pie with coconut ice cream

Dessert was a picture-perfect slice of lattice-top sour cherry pie (I overheard Chef Jen saying the cherries had come from Wesler’s Orchard) and a little scoop of housemade coconut ice cream sitting pretty beside it. Wow. I couldn’t imagine a better end to a better meal. Chef Jen made the rounds to each table during dessert, I’m sure collecting compliments all along the way. She certainly got quite a few from us. This meal blew my mind.

Last night’s dinner carried a per-person price tag of $38, which seemed extremely reasonable for the amount and quality of food we received. Be aware — there is no alcohol here, only water, coffee and iced tea, but diners are perfectly welcome to bring their own wine or beer.

These Farm to Table dinners happen once a month or so as scheduling allows; follow the Gennett Mansion Facebook page for updates. I, for one, am thrilled to know these events are taking place in my little old hometown, and plan to make a return trip as soon as new details are posted. If you’re up for a memorable fine dining experience in a beautiful historic setting, get your reservation in for one of these dinners post-haste.

For more info about the Gennett Mansion, visit www.gennettmansion.com.

Louisville lingo for foodies

I got schooled (in a good way) about Louisville’s eclectic food scene during a delightful City Taste Tour this afternoon that included samples all along the way. Interestingly, Louisville is home to some very distinctive, and awesomely delicious, food items that you can only get here. Oh sure, you can pay your respects to Colonel Sanders at beautiful historic Cave Hill Cemetery, but you should also know there’s a whole lot more worth sampling besides extra-crispy drumsticks. You’ll find just about any food your heart and tummy desires in Louisville, but these are some of the traditional tastes everyone should try:

Modjeskas from Schimpff’s Confectionery

One word: Modjeska. Learn it. Know it. Love it. In the 1880s, local Louisville confectioner Anton Busath happened to catch a performance by Polish actress Madam Helena Modjeska at the old Macauley Theater and was inspired to create a special candy in her honor. Hence, the Modjeska was born — a gooey marshmallow covered in soft caramel. These divine goodies are available at candy stores throughout the area, including Muth’s Candy in the NuLu district and the adorable Schmipff’s Confectionery across the river in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Benedictine. As Leslie, our knowledgeable tour guide, informed us, Benedictine is to Louisville what peanut butter and jelly is to the rest of the country. The original recipe is credited to one Jenny Benedict, a Louisville caterer who invented the green-tinted sandwich spread in the 1800s. It’s pretty basic, really — cream cheese, cucumber and green onions. Perfect for ladies who lunch, I imagine this stuff has been making its way onto tea sandwiches around these parts for ages.

The Hot Brown. A creation of Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, the hot brown is a real gut-buster of a yummy lunch. You start with a slice of toast, then layer on turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese, then drench the whole thing with creamy Mornay sauce. Slide it under the broiler for a few minutes to take it to new heights of sinfully caloric deliciousness. You’re welcome.

mint julep at Churchill Downs

Mint juleps. The traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are kind of a touristy thing to order. Locals and regulars seem to gravitate more toward bourbon neat, or mixed into a more respectable cocktail. I drank my first ever mint julep (quickly followed by my second) on Sunday night during a party at Churchill Downs. To say it was sweet is an understatement. I liked it, but this probably isn’t a libation you’d want to drink a bunch of in one sitting. Think sweet tea with extra sugar, bourbon and a sprig of fresh mint. I’d like to try to recreate a slightly less sweet version of this at home when the mint springs up again in my herb garden.

bourbon balls

Bourbon balls. Speaking of bourbon, don’t even think about missing out on a bourbon ball during a visit to Kentucky. Invented by Ruth Booe of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company in nearby Frankfort way back when, these babies take a bourbony, brown sugary, creamy center and dunk it in chocolate. Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville has reinvented the recipe in a French toast dish that sounds ridiculously, insanely decadent and delicious.

rolled oysters

Rolled oysters. A brainchild of the Mazzoni family in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this is the mother of all fried oysters. Take three fresh oysters, dip them in an egg batter, roll them together in breadcrumbs and deep fry. Voila. A rolled oyster. These things are the size of a baseball, and can be eaten with cocktail sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon. Who knew a Midwestern/southern town along the Ohio River could turn out such an authoritative seafood dish?

Weisenberger grits. The best restaurants in town advertise Weisenberger grits on their menus, so I asked why. Weisenberger grits are apparently the Rolls-Royce of cornmeal, produced at the Weisenberger mill in central Kentucky by six generations of Weisenbergers. If you see them on a menu, order them. Immediately. And for those of you drinking along at home — Weisenberger.

Derby Pie®. Trademarked by Kern’s Kitchen, this dessert makes plain old pecan pie look downright pathetic by subbing chopped black walnuts and chocolate chips into a top-secret classified recipe. Uh, yum.

Wait, there’s more… Louisville’s been named a top foodie town by several magazines, and a drive around quickly uncovers the reasons why. Have I sufficiently whetted your appetite?

For info about a mouthwatering way to see and learn about Louisville, call Leslie Burke’s City Taste Tours at (502) 457-8686 or visit www.citytastetours.com. I guarantee you won’t go home hungry or thirsty.