The 4-foot penguin first appeared at the end of my hall, but 30 minutes later when I opened my door, the rotund red bird was there in front of me. “Don’t worry,” said a man walking by. “They’re always on the move.”
The migratory birds, sculptures first exhibited at the 2005 Venice Biennale and now part of the collection of 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., add a touch of whimsy. But with 9,000 square feet of gallery space and art in all corridors and rooms, three-fourths coming from the owners’ private collection valued at $10 million, 21c is a serious museum.
Carved out of five former 19th-century bourbon and tobacco warehouses, 21c is both part of the revitalization of Louisville’s delightful downtown and a transformation of art from backdrop into upfront and thought-provoking.
The sleek, minimalist interior — uber-urbanism with linear white walls dividing the main lobby and downstairs gallery into cozy conversational and exhibit spaces — is softened with touches of the buildings’ past using exposed red brick walls and original timber and iron support beams as part of the decor. Named this year by Travel + Leisure as one of the 500 Best Hotels in the World, 21c is also the first North American museum of 21st-century contemporary art.
I find more whimsy on a plate at Proof on Main, the hotel’s restaurant, when the waiter plops down my bill and a fluff of pink cotton candy — no after-dinner mints here. But the food, a fusion of Italian and American South, will please even the most serious foodinista. Free-range chicken is paired with Tuscan cabbage and sweet potatoes, gnocchi topped with paper-thin slices of Kentucky ham, black-eyed peas and ham fritters. House-cured pancetta seasons the baby Brussels sprouts, grown on the restaurant’s 1,000-acre farm. Local is on the drink menu as well with more than 50 regional and seasonal Kentucky bourbons.
A meal like this demands a walk, so I step outside (more art here) on Main, a street of 19th-century cast-iron facades, the second largest collection in the U.S. Once known as Whiskey Row, it’s refined now as Museum Row on Main. To my left, a 120-foot bat leans on the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, across the street is the Louisville Science Center, and nearby are several more including the Muhammad Ali Center.
Heading east, I take a 15-minute stroll to NuLu, an emerging neighborhood of galleries, restaurants and shops. I’ve come for the Modjeskas, caramel-covered marshmallows created in 1888 in honor of a visiting Polish actress and still made from the original recipe at Muth’s Candies.
The store, which opened in 1921 and is still owned by the same family, has withstood urban decay and now is an old fashioned highlight of trendy NuLu as is Joe Lay’s, the three story brick former school house crammed with antiques right across the street. In a quick aside, Lay got the great idea 30 years ago during the rush of urban renewal to scoop up all the architectural treasures—stained glass windows, sconces, doors, lighting and you-name-it that was tossed out in the alleys when beautiful old apartment buildings and homes were being torn down. Muth’s claim to fame, is that they hold the recipe—secret of course—for Modjeska’s, which were created by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who moved to Louisville in the mid-1800s and developed an obsession for the Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, who toured the U.S. and performed in the Louisville area numerous times.
And though at the time there were many products named after the Shakespearean actress, the only one remaining and still revered is Busath’s candies.
A perfectionist when creating his sweet homage, Busath spent years perfecting the caramel marshmallow treat. And Muth’s continues to make them using his recipe. I stock up on these and, another Kentucky favorite, Bourbon Balls—after all it’s a long walk back to the hotel.
2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups white corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
3/4 pound marshmallows, cut in half with scissors
Combine sugar, 1 cup of cream, butter, syrup, and salt in a heavy 3 or 4 quart saucepan. Put remaining cream in a small pan and heat it separately. Bring sugar-cream-butter mixture to boil, stirring constantly. Wipe down sides of pan with wet cloth or cover with lid briefly to dissolve remaining sugar crystals.
When it begins a rolling boil, dribble the hot cup of cream into the boiling mixture, stirring. Don't let the boiling stop. Cook over medium heat, stirring as necessary to prevent scorching until thermometer registers 238˚ F degrees. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Allow cooked caramel to stand 10 minutes before starting to dip. Drop marshmallow half into caramel, then with fork, turn it over to coat completely and lift out, pulling the fork over edge of pan so surplus runs back into pan.
Place each piece on buttered or oiled surface, such as cookie sheets or waxed paper. When set, wrap each piece separately in waxed paper.
If you want to cheat, you could buy caramels and, after melting them, dip the marshmallows in the hot caramel mixture.