Seasons by the Sea: Hats, Horses, and Hooch

Muddle some spearmint in bourbon in preparation for that most deadly of cocktails, the mint julep
A Kentucky “hot brown” sandwich, above, often follows a day or night of drinking the bourbon-heavy mint juleps seen in the background. Laura Donnelly

Saturday is the 144th Kentucky Derby, a.k.a. Run for the Roses, dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” I love horses and I love the Kentucky Derby. I start to study the field about a week ahead of the race, which is pointless for a novice like me, because as Charlie Whittingham, a trainer, once said “racehorses are like strawberries, they can go bad overnight.” 

Between the time I wrote this, the time you pick up your paper, and the post time (6:34 p.m. Saturday) everything will have changed.

Derby Day is also an excuse to polish the silver julep cups, whip up some Southern food, specifically burgoo, hot browns, and Derby pie, and muddle some spearmint in bourbon in preparation for that most deadly of cocktails, the mint julep. If this drink is too strong for you, there is also the Oaks Lily, or Blush Lily, basically a version of the Cosmopolitan. Last year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., over 120,000 mint juleps were served and about 40,000 Blush Lilys.

Ninety percent of the ladies who attend the Derby wear big, flowery hats. It’s all about hats, horses, and hooch!

While living in Virginia, one of our best friends was Lisa Thompson, a born and bred Louisvillian. Her father, Buddy, raised thoroughbreds and had a bourbon distillery. She is one of the best cooks I know, and worked at a horse hospital near their farm in Leesburg, so she and her husband, Johnnie, really know their stuff when it comes to the Derby.

If you want to host a Derby party, just about any Southern food will do: deviled eggs, ham biscuits, fried chicken, greasy beans, tea sandwiches, cheese straws, pimento cheese spread, bourbon balls. The aforementioned Kentucky “hot brown” is more of a late-night-after-dancing-til-1-a.m. dish. Lisa would often serve this for Sunday lunches.

While researching recipes for this dish (named after the Brown Hotel in Louisville), I came across some ridiculous variations. You do not put pimentos on the sandwich, nor should you make the Mornay with heavy cream. Oof. Basically, it is Texas toast (thick toasted white bread), topped with roast turkey breast, sliced tomatoes, and Mornay sauce, with crisp slices of bacon crisscrossed on the top. A garnish of chopped fresh parsley and a sprinkling of paprika give this somewhat unattractive dish some pinkies-in-the-air class . . . I suppose.

In the 1920s, over 1,000 guests would attend the Brown Hotel’s nightly dinner dance. After hours of dancing, they’d wander into the restaurant for ham and eggs, but that became boring after a while. The chef, Fred Schmidt, is credited with the open-faced sandwich invention. The Mornay sauce should be simple bechamel to which you add grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese.

Kentucky burgoo is another classic Derby day dish, it consists of three meats — usually pork, beef chuck, and chicken — combined with corn, lima beans, onions, carrots, celery, and okra. Like many Southern dishes, it is cooked and cooked and cooked in a big cast- iron kettle until it is a thick brown concoction. They say “a burgoo is just a stew if you can’t stand a spoon up in it.”

To make a Derby pie, simply follow your favorite recipe for pecan pie and add about three-quarters cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the pecan filling before baking. Don’t have time? Tate’s Bake Shop in Southampton makes a fine version of it.

For those who don’t give a hoot (or a hoof) about the Kentucky Derby, Saturday is also Cinco de Mayo. This is the annual celebration of the Mexican army’s victory over the French empire at the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza.

Get your avocados today so they’ll be ripe enough to make guacamole on Saturday. Some other menu ideas are queso fundido, a rich, cheesy dip, red chile chicken enchiladas, chipotle shrimp tostadas, pork carnitas, margaritas, and a simple and silky caramel flan.

When I place a bet on a horse on Saturday, it may be for no other reason than his or her name, or the color of the jockey’s silks. I’m rooting for Mendelssohn, because I have a crush on the actor Ben Mendelsohn, who played a bad guy on Netflix’s “Bloodline.” But Bolt D’Oro’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, will be wearing some snappy orange and purple silks, so maybe I’ll root for him.

Here are some recipes to inspire you for the most exciting two minutes.

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