When Ashlee Clark Thompson started her blog in 2010, it was more for her own benefit. She had just left her career in journalism (as a reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader) for a yearlong stint with AmeriCorps VISTA in her hometown of Louisville. Having essentially swapped a full-time salary for a meager stipend that barely covered the cost of living, she went out in search of cheap meals — and her blog, Ashlee Eats, chronicled it.
Five years later, she continues to maintain the blog, has amassed thousands of followers (2,648 on Twitter alone), has a full-time job at Humana, is enrolled in Spalding University’s renowned MFA in Writing program, and, in her spare time, has written a book on the past, present and future of Louisville’s diners, which was released March 16.
Thompson tells Insider that researching and writing the book took a long nine months — and it’s no coincidence that’s the same number of months a mother carries a child.
“I don’t have any kids, but this is probably the closest I have been,” she jokes. “Whenever there was free time, I was either eating or writing. It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in terms of writing, just because it was balancing work, family, school. Fortunately, everything just came together and a book popped out.”
Thompson says she was contacted by History Press, publisher of “Louisville Diners,” via a tweet that asked if she had ever thought about writing a book. She jokingly replied, “I think about writing a book all the time,” and had no idea she was talking to a commissioning editor who was very serious.
Since her wheelhouse was affordable, casual dining, Thompson pitched her idea on diners.
“I realized diners are kind of the quintessential place to get a cheap meal that will feed your soul,” she says. “Diners are the dining-out experience for the rest of us — for the majority of Americans, really. I love having a good meal at Mussel & Burger Bar or Proof on Main, but that’s not the food I can eat every day. It’s great to have special-occasion restaurants like these, but I feel like diners help you make a normal day a special occasion. A family of four can go to a diner and not break the bank and still have a meal where everyone can get what they want.”
Needless to say, her pitch was a strike, and she was off researching the book within days. As Thompson traversed neighborhoods, leaving no greasy spoon unturned, her findings confirmed Louisville’s diversity. A Shively native who has also lived in Old Louisville, near Churchill Downs and now the East End, she knew each part of town held its own unique stories and establishments.
“For me, it was a welcome surprise to see there were so many different places to get a really good meal all over town,” she says. “I hope it’ll inspire people who come into town, as well as those who live here, to venture out past Bardstown Road — those places are wonderful, too, but I hope people are willing to go out into different neighborhoods.”
The book features snippets and histories of many of Louisville’s famous diners, like Barbara Lee’s Kitchen, Shirley Mae’s Cafe, Ollie’s Trolley and Twig & Leaf, interspersed with reflections from local food writers (Insider’s Steve Coomes and Kevin Gibson are both featured).
Thompson also included a chapter on soul food. She says as she was researching, she noticed many diners were located in middle-class white suburbia.
“That made me question, ‘Where did black people like me eat? What was our diner?’ The answer was soul food restaurants. The American diner experience, unfortunately, was different depending on what color you were. Today, it’s wonderful to see people of all colors in diners and soul food restaurants. I feel like they’ve become a place where it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Like picking a favorite child, Thompson won’t reveal her preferred place, but she says some stand out to her, like Shirley Mae’s in Smoketown, Barbara Lee’s in Clifton and, one of the more contemporary-diner concepts, Wild Eggs. She says chef-driven breakfast spots like Wild Eggs and Toast will take the diner experience even further into the future.
“Diners aren’t going extinct anytime soon,” she says. “Some might evolve a little more, but the concept behind them is all the same — bacon and eggs, club sandwiches, stuff like that. They always have evolved. In the 1800s, they operated more as food trucks. They were essentially a wagon where you’d walk up to get a meal or sandwich.”
In the end, Thompson believes there is more to diners than greasy food and nostalgia.
“I think that element still does hold true, but for me, the biggest appeal to diners is you can go there and be yourself. At a diner, you’re treated like family, even if you’re new.”
Thompson, a first-time author, will be out and about promoting the book. Below is a roundup of her upcoming readings and signings. Stay tuned to her blog for more.
- March 21: McQuixote Books & Coffee, 3 p.m.
- April 2: Oldham County Public Library, 6:30 p.m.
- May 14: Carmichael’s Bookstore, 7 p.m.
“Louisville Diners” is available at area retailers and online at the History Press website. It’s suggested price is $19.99.