Derby Day!

The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow! Looking over the sports section of The New York Times today and photos of the muddy track at Churchill Downs reminded me to get cracking and write up my own Derby recipes and traditions for my friends in other parts of the country.

How to Dress for the Derby

Derby is the time for considered bets or wild hunches, frosty mint juleps and dressing to the nines: elaborate hats or fascinators, colorful silk dresses or suits, finished off with heels and gloves. Men wear bright trousers, poplin or linen suits in ice cream colors, bright socks and fancy ties or bow ties, with seersucker and classic navy always in form. Hats are for the men, too, from bowlers to boaters (but no cowboy hats, please). Gentleman, please praise each woman’s hat: it’s expected!

Churchill Downs

I haven’t been to the actual race in years — when I was often included with my family in former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s box at Churchill Downs. That was always a treat: no one could sing “My Old Kentucky Home” better than Happy, usually wearing a white linen three piece suit accompanied by movie stars like Natalie Wood, baseball players like Bob Feller or politicians such as the elegant Sen. Thurston B. Morton and his wife made sure to stop by to greet the Chandlers.

My good friend Amy Zemo Broadhurst has been at Churchill Downs all week, from Millionaire’s Row to the Winner’s Circle Suites to the Turf Club. The Turf Club, by the way, is where you will find the owners and trainers. No messy infield for Amy, who is immaculately dressed and entertains business clients during Derby. Should you fail in your quest for the good seats, there’s always the Infield, where the grass should be blue – but is too crowded to see. Tickets for the Infield used to be $20 when I was young, but are now $60. You are allowed to bring in food but not liquor though somehow liquor WILL make it through.

Derby Parties at Home

Alas, Happy is long dead and the real Kentucky Derby scene for me now is in the private parties held by Kentuckians in their homes. Even NON-Kentuckians like to celebrate the festive day and while your party may be as humble as a bucket of KFC and beer, here are some traditional ingredients for a successful party:

Country Ham

I used to buy my country ham and beaten biscuits from Taylor Farms in Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Farmer Taylor’s celebrated method of curing has been adapted by others but I now favor the country ham served by the fabled Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  These hams have been cured by Meacham Hams in Sturgis, Kentucky for more than eighty years. Cooked or uncooked ham is available along with other delicious smoked meats; and they will also provide nicely trimmed biscuit cut slices. Rather than host a party, you may want to consider a traditional Derby breakfast to start the day off right. Happy and Mildred Chandler started this tradition during his first term as Governor in 1936. They served an excellent spread of country ham, grits, red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, biscuits, jam and plenty of hot coffee. This meal is no longer served at the Governor’s Mansion, but it’s still a wonderful menu.

Beaten Biscuits

While I prefer smallish buttermilk biscuits with my ham, beaten biscuits are an old Kentucky tradition.  On the crisp side, the biscuits are made by beating dough with a wooden mallet for half an hour, no more, no less.  Luckily for all hostesses who don’t employ a cook or have the patience to make them, Meacham Hams sells them by the dozen.  Even stores like Liquor Barn sell them,  NOBODY wants to make beaten biscuits any more.   Halfway between a cracker and a biscuit, just add a little butter and a slice of ham. They are so good. However, if you want to be old-fashioned, here is an excellent old recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
1/4 cup lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup light cream
2 tablespoons cold water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar together. Use a fork to “cut” the lard into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. Using a standing mixer, or a wooden spoon, mix the dough as you slowly add the cream. Mix well to form the dough into a ball, adding water if needed. Place the dough onto a tabletop, and knead slightly. With a mallet or a rolling pin, beat the dough a few times to form it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough over, and then beat it out again. Repeat this process until the dough becomes white and blisters form on the surface, about 30 minutes. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 2 inch rounds, and prick the top with the tines of a fork: nine holes are traditional. Place on greased baking sheets. Bake until golden, about fifteen minutes.

Miss Jennie Benedict, a Louisville caterer, created Benedictine spread at the turn of the last century.  Years ago, certain bakeries in Louisville used to bake pink and green loaves of bread just for these popular finger sandwiches, a staple at Derby parties, weddings and showers.  I have even served these at a funeral where they were much enjoyed.  My recipe, taken from “Kentucky’s Best, Fifty Years of Great Recipes” by Linda Allison Lewis, was amended and given to me by Tish Clark of Prestonsburg, Kentucky:

Tish’s Benedictine

1 8 oz Philadelphia cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
3 tablespoons of grated cucumber, drained well with a paper towel
1 teaspoon finely chopped green onions with tops
1 teeny tiny drop of green food coloring (the color should be delicate)
a dash of two of Tabasco
Blend all ingredients together and mix well. Yield: 10-12 servings (I multiply by eight.) You may serve this on trimmed bread as finger sandwiches or as a dip. Please note there is not a single drop of Benedictine liqueur used in this recipe! I like to make a nice pile of these sandwiches on a silver tray lined with a paper doily and garnished with a few cucumber slices and parsley. (Cover with a damp paper towel so your sandwiches don’t dry out and curl before serving. Refresh as necessary.) I also put out big crystal bowl of pimento cheese with Carr’s crackers, celery stalks, salty peanuts to encourage drinking and deviled eggs to prevent or at least stall off utter drunkenness.

Last week, Amy attended the Taste of Derby Festival and was served the most amazing new dish: Hot Brown Grits. This is an adaptation of the original hot brown recipe, originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 – long before people knew about pesky cholesterol. A hot brown is made from fresh roast turkey, tomatoes, cheddar and Mornay sauce, served atop thickly sliced toast, garnished with strips of bacon, served “piping hot and bubbly brown.” The Brown Hotel serves 800 hot browns a week but during Derby Week, they sell 1200 a day.

Hot Browns with Fried Cheese Grits

1 cup regular grits
1 cup (4 ounces) extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large sweet onions
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound roasted turkey slices
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
8 bacon slices
Prepare 1 cup regular grits according to package directions. Stir in 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese until melted. Pour hot cooked grits into a greased 9-inch square pan. Cover and chill 8 hours or until firm. Invert onto a cutting board, and cut into 4 squares. Cut each square into 4 triangles. Fry grits, in batches, in 2 tablespoons hot vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove from pan, and set aside. Cook 2 large diced sweet onions and 1 tablespoon sugar in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until deep golden brown. Arrange 4 grits triangles in a single layer in a lightly greased individual baking dish or large baking dish; top with turkey, sautéed onion, and cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining grits triangles, turkey, onion, and sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup shredded Swiss or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in cheese, salt, and pepper. Pour over grits, onions and meat, broil 6 inches from heat 4 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned; remove from oven. Top evenly with cooked bacon and sliced tomato. Serve immediately.

I serve mint juleps in individual silver or pewter cups as well as a treasured set of Louisville Stoneware cups bearing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home.”  My ex-husband is an Englishman, so I adopted the habit of serving a pitcher or two of Pimm’s Cup, made with Pimm’s No. 1 herbal liqueur and gin, fresh unsweetened lemonade and garnished with cucumber spears, a slice of apple and a sprig of mint. Last year I served bourbon sours instead of mint juleps and those retro drinks went over in a big way!

As for bourbon, educate yourself on the different kinds of bourbon.  Favorite brands include Four Roses Single Barrel (which has a high rye content), Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, Old Grand Dad, Buffalo Trace (a high corn blend) then wheated bourbons like the very famous Maker’s Mark, Rebel Yell and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Small batch artisanal bourbons like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve have risen in popularity over the past ten years.

Lay a table with your very best linens, platters and crystal. Don’t forget to arrange flowers from your own garden, or red roses from a florist are always appropriate. Be ready to get the party started at least an hour before the actual race starts. And have hankies ready for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house! And you made need those hankies later anyway for tears of jubilation or losing bets. When the day is over, the owners, breeders and trainers start planning for the next Derby, as does a good hostess. Names are crossed off or added to lists, paper goods or swizzle sticks are bought on sale for next year.

(Lynn Weddington Tucker is a Kentuckian living in New York City since 1976. She has been a fashion designer, publicist and best of all, mother. Lynn is a sustaining member of the Junior League (like any good Southern girl) and as a Methodist, has all the ingredients on hand in her pantry for a casserole for a potluck. Lynn is a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel and loves a good party.)

Lynn Weddington Tucker (Churchill Downs photo by Dave Black)

One Reply to “Derby Day!”

  1. This takes Me back to 1975 when I attended my first Kentucky Derby with Sports Illustrated photographers. We stayed with an old school Kentucky family who knew how to party! Great food, great mint juleps (my first 🙂 ). ” My Old Kentucky Home” was one of most emotional moments I’d ever experienced. A lot of my friends/colleagues from that time are, sadly, no longer with us so this amazing sporting event the first Sat. In May is always watched and revered in our household!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *