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Thursday, December 18, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/9/2014

Northern Kentucky’s Berea charms visitors

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
BLADE COLUMNIST
Mary Alice Powell. Mary Alice Powell.
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BEREA, Ky. — Hospitality and education come together in this northern Kentucky city where college students and travelers mix amiably.

The interaction between Berea College students and Boone Tavern and Restaurant guests is an added reason to visit Berea, 35 miles south of Lexington and an easy access from I-75. The work program that covers 130 departments throughout the campus includes many stations in the hotel, where students are at guests’ beck and call and are always eager to tell where they are from, their subjects, and their goals.

Guests meet students manning the registration desk, cleaning rooms, waiting on tables in the dining room, selling crafts in the gift shop, or on call to give a hand with luggage. In good weather a tour of the farm where students also work is welcomed. Some foods produced on the farm are used in the restaurant.

The Berea mission is to educate young people in the Appalachian district who have more potential than they do financial resources for higher education. The money they earn working 10 to 15 hours a week at the variety of jobs throughout the campus pays for their books, lodging, and food. They pay no tuition because of generous donations to the college.

On my February visit, as in the past, conversation with the students was stimulating. Each student I chatted with was optimistic about the future and had high praise for the college and the instructors. Once again I returned home thinking the Berea plan would be great and a plus for Toledo if it could be introduced at one of the city’s hotels.

The Boone Tavern was built as a guesthouse in 1909 to house college visitors. Nellie Frost, wife of the college president, was a cordial hostess until the number of her houseguests grew to 300 a year and she suggested a small inn be built. The name tavern is now associated with alcohol, but no alcohol is served or allowed at Boone.

Mrs. Frost’s little guest house grew into a handsome hotel with 64 rooms and a place on the list of Historic Inns of America. A $9 million renovation four years ago put it in the national spotlight as the first LEED gold-rated “green” hotel in Kentucky. LEED is the certification of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The upgrades did not disturb the historic value or charm of the 105-year-old building, where guest rooms feature cherry and walnut furniture made by students.

Southern spoonbread is a tradition in the dining room. Cornbread soufflé with a custard-like consistency is served tableside as a dinner starter and the recipe for it is included with the check. I will follow the spoonbread recipe in Richard Hougen’s 1955 cookbook, Look No Further. Mr. Hougen was culinary director at the tavern for 30 years.

Student crafts ranging from jewelry to furniture are a big attraction of a visit to Berea. I returned home with two handmade brooms and jars of pickled okra, elderberry, and Traffic Jam. The latter is the students’ creative name for mixed fruit.

Visitors are invited to watch students making crafts in a storefront that is a short walk from the hotel. Whether they are assembling baskets or brooms, or pounding silver into a bracelet, they are eager to explain their work and engage in conversation. Weaving, woodworking, and ceramics are other art forms in which the students excel and are shown in the Berea College Crafts catalog. Skittle games are a woodworking hallmark.

Berea brooms are far more than a tool to sweep the floor. The handcrafted designer brooms are made in several styles and many colors. Each year the students introduce a new style in the Traditions Series that will never be reproduced. A certificate is signed by the artists. The broom-making students also are doing their part in the fight against cancer. Sweep Away Cancer is a whiskbroom design and a portion of the sales is given to the American Cancer Society.

Two new broom designs in this year’s catalog are the result of a trip to Japan by the broom-making class. The San Whisk, made in avocado, gold, and orange, refers to the Japanese word san for three. The long handle of the Stupa Broom, also a Japanese inspiration, is tiered to resemble Asian monuments. It is said to be Buddhist in origin and is promoted as spiritual and may bring peace to the home of the owner.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at:mpowell@theblade.com



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