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Run for the Roses, to the Milliners and the Liquor Store
My Old Kentucky Home (revised)
The sun shines bright in My Old Kentucky home,
‘Tis Derby time and people are gay;
The hats sport plumes; silk flowers are in bloom
While the birds would nest in your chapeau all the day.
The young folks roll in the infield swarm
All merry, all happy and drunk,
By ‘n’ by Early Times comes a knocking at the door
Then My Old Kentucky Home, good night!
Stephen Foster would likely take exception to my revisions of his beloved ballad, but Early Times Bourbon might not. At a price of eight dollars each, an estimated 80-120,000 Early Times Mint Juleps will be sold at the Kentucky Oaks Race on Friday and on Saturday at The 135th Kentucky Derby. Most will be sold in highly collectible Derby glasses.
Early Times, which began distilling in 1860, was founded by Jack Beam. This is not a typo; Jack was Jim’s uncle. Since Stephan Foster is suspected to have died of alcoholism and a related fall, just four years later, it is doubtful that Early Times was directly responsible, despite his “early” and un-“timely” death. Still, Foster’s venerated tune lives on and is sung by hundreds of thousands of teary-eyed spectators and TV viewers annually on the first Saturday in May. As the official song of the Bluegrass State, Foster’s original 1843 lyrics were revised in 1986 by the Kentucky House of Representatives to remove lyrics with racial connotations.
My re-write of the contemporary lyrics calls to mind Kentucky Derby traditions that turn this two-minute Run for the Roses into a month-long celebration of horses, hats, whiskey and wagering.
A Dee’s Designed Hat
Starting at the Top: The Beloved Hats
Fillies of the equine kind are rare in the Derby race, but the stands and infield are abundant with fillies of the female, head-turning kind, especially when they are sporting stunning chapeaux. The custom of covering one’s head for the Derby mimics England’s Ascot, where the rules were – and remain – implicit: “whilst ladies must not show bare midriffs or shoulders and must wear hats.”
Today, the stands at Churchill Downs and Millionaire’s Row, in particular, are dotted with feathers, plumes, outrageous puffs and blooms planted in a vast sea of multicolored straw. The women are holding on to the hat tradition, so to speak, but shoulders are showing in the stands. In the infield, midriffs and many other body parts are bared blatantly ( someday these college kids will sober up and look back with regret), but many still sport hats, even if mostly ball-caps with embroidered Greek letters that would make their “ancients” cringe.
The designing and selling of Derby hats is a robust international industry that goes into a full gallop beginning annually in February. On the local Louisville turf is Dee’s Fashion, Design & Craft, a family owned and operated enterprise, which has accepted more than 1,400 custom orders for the 2009 race. Most, but not all of their customers are from the Louisville area. Kathy Olliges and her husband, Larry lead the family venture with a staff of 50-plus including Kathy’s sister, Karen Vogelsberg who creates pre-designed Derby hats just prior to the season.
Dee’s custom ordering methodology has been honed to a fine social science. Locals come in with Derby dresses in tow and sign up for a consultation. Olliges says, “We work with each customer to figure out what they want. They try on various blank hats in a variety of colors to match their dress, then we select flowers and other adornments.” Consultations can take anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes “depending upon how simple the hat is.” Prudent customers often recycle a hat they especially like by removing last year’s embellishments and starting over.
“We actually see more hat lending among friends than recycling, although if a customer really likes the feel of the hat, or the way it slopes, they may recycle,” said Olliges. Many of Olliges’ customers buy the millinery supplies from Dee’s and create their own hats.
Kentucky may own the Derby, but the Bluegrass State has no monopoly over Derby Hats. Down in New Orleans, internationally renowned milliner, Yvonne La Fleur is placing the finishing touches on diet maven Jenny Craig’s Derby hat. Craig has a horse in this race. Literally. Owned by the Sid and Jenny Craig Foundation, and ironically named, “Chocolate Candy,” the home-bred colt is considered the hope of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Jenny’s hat is a beautiful pearl grey with French taffeta ribbon and French netting,” said La Fleur. But wait. There’s more. “With velvet roses in yellow, grey velvet hyacinth flowers, viola flowers and a puff of ostrich plumes in ivory,” added La Fleur, whose Riverbend District shop has catered to celebrity Derby-goers over the years. La Fleur also allows customers to select from European vintage ribbons and ornamentation to direct the design, but “most just trust us,” added La Fleur. (see author’s note on this photo of a La Fleur hat)
Grey Goose Vodka’s Sponsored Hat
Hats Off to Charity:
Derby Hats have even taken on official sponsorship this year with the likes of Brooke Shields sporting a blue GREY GOOSE Vodka hat designed by Rachel Roy. The hat will ultimately be auctioned to benefit the Clothes Off Our Back Foundation and their charities. Funds from the GREY GOOSE hat will specifically be directed to The Barnstable-Brown Foundation to support diabetes research. (Mind you, the official GREY GOOSE “Run for the Roses” cocktail recipe is heavily laced with sugar including “two parts Southern sweet iced-tea.” My own hat is off to the cause, and the cause-related marketing effort. Still, the recipe should, at a minimum, offer a sugar-substitute option to be used in the tea, given the association with a diabetes cause.)
All Dolled Up
Even Barbie is on track this year with an official Kentucky Derby Barbie, replete with a roses-adorned (what else could it be at The Run for the Roses?), wide-brimmed, white chapeau, a floral sundress (with a hint of shoulder) and faux pearls. The anorexic fifty-year old with the ultimate plastic surgery and Mattel have also given to The Clothes Off Our Back Foundation, with a human-scale replica of Barbie’s hat, the first of which was sold at auction for $1,350 in time to be worn to the Derby. Another 134 replicas will also be sold with the funds directed to the acclaimed Feeding America program (formerly known as America’s Second Harvest) and other charities. (Hopefully, Barbie will receive benefit and finally put on a few pounds.) By the way, Barbie’s first pet was indeed a horse named Dancer.
At the Drop of a Couture Hat: The Infield Bash
Crazy hats, horses heads and beer-topped brims cap off the crowd in the infield. Estimates as high as 80,000 people, mostly revelers and liquor-laced college kids, will stumble and sway their way to the inside of the track. Many never see a horse, or never remember if they did. At eight-bucks a beer or mint julep, this gang drinks beforehand, or attempts to bend the rules into a cleverly disguised BYOB bash. Allowed to bring food, but not booze, the throng, especially the third-turners – have concocted secret-ingredient recipes that will provide a buzz at first bite. More than a few Moms and Dads have hidden their heads in shame when their sweet little sorority girl was shown passed out on a youtube video long before the University of Louisville Marching Band had struck the first note of My Old Kentucky Home.
Louisville native, Hunter S. Thompson wrote of what to expect in the infield, sometimes referred to as the “other derby,” in a 1970 piece, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Thompson wrote: “That whole thing will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other, and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.” Enough said. See for yourself.
Bourbon and Burgoo: What to Drink, What to Eat
Like it or not, the mint julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Undoubtedly, some julep recipes are better than others, but the most authentic are served in a silver julep cup. It is literally debatable whether the accompanying ice should be shaved or crushed, and whether the mint julep is a mixed drink, an art form, or a celebration.
In 1937, General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., grandson of a Confederate General of the same name (Sr. version), who surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson, Tennessee was asked for his mint julep “formula” by then West Point Superintendent, Major General William D. Connor. It may seem an odd request to come from a Wisconsin native who lived in New York at the time. Nevertheless, Buckner complied in a letter, which he titled, “The Quintessence of Gentlemanly Beverages.” Worthy reading, the letter says (among other delicious quotes), “The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not a product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, and emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.” A copious and poetic description of the “ceremony” follows with the closing, “Being overcome with thirst, I can write no further.”
Traditionally, the governor of Kentucky toasts the Derby winner’s owner with a mint julep in a silver cup at the post-Derby Winner’s party. By this time, the owner has already been in the Winner’s Circle and received the solid gold trophy, the last still awarded annually to the winner of a major American sports event, along with the garland of over 400 roses. The governor will likely be drinking some variation of the Early Times Recipe, although as Simon Buckner Jr. might have noted the recipe fails to call for a “slight bruise to the mint leaf.”
The Early Times Mint Julep Recipe
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Early Times Kentucky Whisky
Silver Julep Cups
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one-tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
As essential as mint juleps may be, no Derby gathering is authentic without some version of a chocolate-nut pie, frequently dosed with bourbon. The real Derby Pie ® was created, patented – and is seriously protected by Kern’s Kitchen In Louisville. Only a few family members know their recipe, but attempts at knock-offs abound. Here’s one that originally came from the Kentucky Derby Museum cookbook: Chocolate-Nut-Kentucky-Pie.
What is served between drinks and dessert?
Bourbon-glazed this meat, or bourbon-infused that meat, followed by bourbon truffles, are on many a menu. Alternatively, one could simply settle on a Derby classic of Burgoo. Many burgoo fans consider the best to be the recipe used at the family-owned, Moon-Lite Barbecue Inn in Owensboro, KY, where mutton is the main ingredient. Moon-Lite’s burgoo has been favorably reviewed by the likes of the LA Times, Gourmet Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and more. Moon-Lite claims that mutton gives the “oomph” that squirrel (yikes!) delivered in historical versions. Local and mail-order requests stream in from around the country in the months preceding the Derby.
The Burgoo Recipe
4 lb. Mutton, 1-3 lb. Chicken, 3/4 lb. Cabbage Ground or Chopped Fine , 3/4 lb. Onion Ground or Chopped Fine , 5 lb. Potatoes Peeled and Diced , 2-17 oz. Can Corn (we like Shoe Peg) or 2 Cups Fresh Corn, 3/4 Cup Tomato Catsup , 3-10 3/4 oz Can Tomato, Puree Juice of One Lemon , 3/4 Cup Distilled Vinegar , 1/2 Cup Worcestershire Sauce, 2 1/2 Tablespoons Salt (or more to taste) , 2 Tablespoons Black Pepper, 1 Teaspoon Cayenne (more if you like) and Water.
Boil mutton in enough water to cover. Cook until tender about 2-3 hours. Throw out the broth and bones. Chop meat fine. Set aside. Boil chicken in 2 gallons of water in large kettle until tender. Remove chicken, add potatoes, cabbage, onion, corn, catsup and one gallon of water to chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, chop chicken meat, discarding bones and skin. When potatoes are tender add chicken, mutton, lemon, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and puree. Let this simmer for two hours or longer, stirring often from the bottom as it thickens. Yield: 3 Gallons Burgoo. An additional tip is offered on Moon-Lite’s website: “About the only point on which burgoo experts agree is the consistency of the soup. A good burgoo should be thick, but still soupy. This is the reason for the long, slow cooking time. It gives the burgoo time to thicken naturally.” (I can personally attest to Moon-Lite’s burgoo having been there many times with my college roommate who was from Owensboro.) Third-generation Moon-Liter, Patrick Bosley was quick to point out that a horse named Burgoo King won the 1932 Derby.
Not a mutton fan? Fill out your derby spread with fried chicken, country ham (preferably Kentucky-cured; sorry, Virginia, but this ain’t your party), barbecue ribs, cheese grits, potato salad, okra and more. Start with cheese straws and spiced nuts.
Post-Time to The Finish Line
With a race that runs barely over two minutes, a song salute lasting under a minute, and thousand-dollar-plus hats for one day, the 135-year old event has commendably s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d its stride into a festive season. Derby officials and NBC, the exclusive race broadcaster, have added new events and expanded fashion coverage to attract more female viewers. In other words, the three-year old fillies at Kentucky Oaks are being trotted out to draw more fillies.
Here’s a recap of coverage on Friday and Saturday.
- Friday, May 1 –Kentucky Oaks Race: Three-year old fillies race for a $500,000 purse. Coverage on Bravo from 5-6 p.m. ET. Also includes: a special featuring the food, fashion and celebrity experience associated with Kentucky Oaks Day. Ladies First at Kentucky Oaks will benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure in a new partnership to raise funds to aid in breast cancer awareness and research. Churchill Downs will donate a minimum of $100,000 to Komen.
- Saturday, May 2 – NBC coverage of the 135th Kentucky Derby begins at 4 p.m. ET with the Red Carpet Show from 4 p.m.-5 p.m. Coverage of the actual Derby begins at 5 p.m. exclusively on NBC.
Barbie, the day after the Derby
- Expect that youtube.com will likely post some videos from the infield within days thereafter.
Being overcome with thirst, I can write no further – except this author’s note: Kirsten Leslie Barr and Yvonne La Fleur designed this hat. Kirsten worked with Yvonne to select just the right French vintage trims, ribbons and flowers as a gift to Kirsten’s wicked stepmother (the author) to wear to Kirsten’s outdoor wedding in Charleston. It is beloved and has been worn to a few Derby parties, but is still awaiting its Churchill Downs appearance.
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