CARLISLE, Ky. -- As the server set my main luncheon course before me, I had to resist the urge to wrinkle my nose in distaste. After all, I thought of goetta the same way I thought of haggis, Rocky Mountain oysters and eel pie -- all food items I would gladly pass on. I had tried goetta once before and didn't like it.
However, since I was here specifically for the purpose of eating it, I bravely picked up my fork and cut off a piece. Expecting the worst, I found instead that it was quite delicious -- nothing like the tasteless blob of meat I had tried before. I kept cutting off pieces until to my surprise, the goetta was gone.
To those who may not be familiar with goetta, it is a meat and grain sausage, composed mainly of meat, pork, peppers, onions, pin oats and spices, and cooked for several hours. It's a common dish in Cincinnati, thanks to the city's German heritage, and by extension, across the Ohio River in northern Kentucky as well.
So, you might ask what is a German dish that many in the Commonwealth of Kentucky have never heard of -- let alone eaten -- doing on the menu at a Kentucky State Resort Park? It just happens to be the featured dish at one of the stops along the state's Culinary Trail.
From now through the end of October, visitors to nine of Kentucky's 17 resort parks have an opportunity to try Kentucky Proud dishes that are a signature of the individual park's region. In partnership with the Kentucky Department of Tourism, chefs at the participating parks are offering guests a chance to explore the commonwealth's diverse culinary heritage.
That means everything from burgoo and barbecued mutton at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park in Dawson Springs to Kentucky Bibb lettuce salad with Benedictine dressing and Hot Browns at Rough River Dam State Resort Park in Falls of Rough. And yes, goetta at Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park in Carlisle.
Now in its second year, the Culinary Trail operates in a similar fashion to the commonweath's renowned Bourbon Trail. Visitors can pick up a passport at any of the participating parks, and after ordering the signature meal, have their passport stamped. Once they have visited all nine parks and sampled the fare, they can turn in their passports to receive Kentucky-branded merchandise.
"The Kentucky State Parks Culinary Trail is a fun way for our guests to experience local dishes all across Kentucky," says parks commissioner Donnie Holland. "Our partnership with the Kentucky Department of Tourism helps guide tourists to our state parks and other culinary destinations in every region."
Knowing I couldn't possibly get to all nine parks before the summer was over, I decided to choose three, beginning with Blue Licks in the Northern Kentucky River Region. Known primarily as being the site where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought, it has earned culinary cred with its menu for Trail visitors.
Along with the goetta, there is a tomato pie appetizer (Blue Licks' recipe calls for vine-ripened tomatoes placed in a pie crust along with onion, grated cheese, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.) You won't find anything more delicious.
Unless it's the park's dessert, Transparent Pie, a favorite of Kentucky native George Clooney. It's golden custardlike appearance is the result of sugar, butter, cream and vanilla all baked in a pie shell.
The park's featured drink has another Clooney connection. The Kentucky Rain cocktail is made with Casamigos tequila, the brand founded by George and his amigo Rande Gerber, and sold to Diageo in 2017 for a whopping $700 million.
What to do after eating: Take in the informative museum on the park grounds. Learn the history of Kentucky from prehistoric times through the Revolutionary War. Exhibits range from the largest collection of Native American artifacts in any Kentucky State Park to the kettle used by Daniel Boone to collect salt from the Licks.
Next it was on to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg for a taste of the Kentucky Appalachians Region. If there is a more scenic spot in the entire commonwealth, I'd be hard pressed to say where. Sitting on the terrace overlooking Dewey Lake with one of mixologist Lee Ann's specialty bourbon cocktails and watching the sunset came close to being a transcendental experience.
Of course, I was here to eat and the Music Highway Grill in May Lodge, with its floor-to-ceiling windows offering a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding forest, provides a meal that will more than sate your appetite.
The salmon patties entree might not be fresh from the lake, but the appetizer of soup beans with melt-in-your-mouth cornbread definitely represents the region. It was hard, but I saved room for the generous portion of blackberry jam cake with caramel icing. Afterward, I took my coffee out to the terrace and listened to the music of the night -- a symphony of frogs and other nocturnal creatures that provided background sounds for the ballet of dancing fireflies.
What to do after eating: Head for the gift shop to pick up a copy of "White Squaw" and learn the tragic story behind the park's namesake pioneering woman settler. If it's elk season (fall is the best time) take one of their escorted elk tours (the area has the largest concentration east of the Rockies). If it's not elk season, try your hand at bird-watching (spring warblers, eastern bluebirds and American Redstarts are prolific).
While you're here, take the 20-minute drive to Van Leer and join the tour leaving from Webb's Grocery Store to Loretta Lynn's Homeplace immortalized in the film "Coal Miner's Daughter."
My final stop on the Culinary Trail was Natural Bridge State Resort Park in the Bluegrass, Horses, Bourbon and Boone Region. This park is a quick hour's drive from Lexington, and a visit here can be easily combined with the neighboring Red River Gorge for a double feature of jaw-dropping scenery.
Scenery aside, the Culinary Trail stops at the park's Hemlock Lodge, and if I had to choose one that offers an all-Kentucky lineup this is it. The town of Winchester takes pride of place here with the featured beverage being Ale-8-One (mixed with bourbon), and the appetizer, Beer Cheese, both of which originated here.
The entree is Kentucky beef and the dessert, a rich bourbon chocolate cake. But it's the sides that adhere to the canon of commonwealth cuisine: a salad of Kentucky limestone Bibb lettuce with sorghum vinaigrette dressing, spoonbread and that most southern of all staples, creamy grits.
What to do after you eat: Take the sky lift to the top of the 65-foot tall natural sandstone arch for a view of what has come to be known as Kentucky's Land of the Arches.
So, if a park experience at one of the nine participating parks is in your summer plans, consider trying the Culinary Trail offerings. Your taste buds will thank you.