All About Kentucky Bourbon Balls, the Forbidden Christmas Cookie

Because we enjoy a wealth of Christmas traditions today, it’s easy to assume that the Holidays have always been filled with fun and food.  But actually history tells another story.

In the late 1890’s American society was split between those choosing to enjoy a lot of the best and those individuals who were becoming concerned about the nation’s expanding waistline (sound famailiar?).  

Enter Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg, America’s first health food advocates. 

If their names ring a bell, yes, you're right.  These were the men who, in the name of improved health and prolonged life, invented graham crackers and corn flakes.

But they went further then merely introducing s’more crackers and dry breakfast foods.  They advocated an entire ‘healthy’ diet that contained no meat, no chicken, no turkey, no fish, no spices, no coffee, no tea, no chocolate, no sugar, no wine or spirits.  Kellogg even founded a health center called the Battle Creek Sanitarium or ‘the San” for short. As you might imagine, such restrictions at the San made Christmas a little Spartan, to say the least.  No wine, no spices? Mon dieu! 

There is even a film, The Road to Wellville”, that gently pokes fun at the waistlines and the extremes that the conservative Victorians were willing to embrace to “live the right life.”

Well, while all this was happening in the Midwest, holiday entertaining was regaining its footing in the South. The bleakness of the Civil War was fading from southern tables and no one there was willing to give up fun and food just to be thin.  (Enough thinness had been imposed by the Civil War to last Southerns for quite some time, thank you please).   

All this is not to say that Southern hostesses weren't aware of national culinary trends.  The health flour developed by Sylvester Graham was by then being sold in cracker form as a “good-for-you” snack. 

Well, thought the southern ladies, it might be good for you, but it doesn’t beat a fine shot of bourbon over the Holidays.... so one can just forget about all those rather boring northern crackers.

And the South did until in 1919 two substitute teachers, Ruth Hanly Booe and Rebecca Gooch, decided their candy making skills were much better than their teaching skills.  

Working in the empty ballroom of a local hotel, they created the first and original Kentucky Bourbon Ball by combining plain ol’ graham cracker crumbs with immortal Kentucky bourbon.  May their fame live forever. 

And though Rebecca later sold her shares to Ruth, the company they founded has continued to this day, the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company, still owned by Ruth’s descents and still making Kentucky Bourbon Balls.

But if you’d prefer to make rather than purchase this holiday season, the University of Kentucky Press has just released a marvelous new book, The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook by Chef Albert W.A. Schmid

On page 34 you’ll find an authentic (and oh so good) recipe for these forbidden cookies that Graham and Kellogg would never have allowed their poor deprived clients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to enjoy – sweet, rich, just-perfect-for-Christmas Kentucky Bourbon Balls.

Now you don’t worry about the calories - none of us will live forever and the Holidays come but once a year.  So go ahead and enjoy some: Santa would approve - So would Miss Ruth!

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010

Posted on December 1, 2010 .