Hats off to Derby Day

May 1st is celebrated in many ways throughout the US: May Day, Maypoles, dancing, ding-dong-ditch with bouquets of flowers, Beltane bonfires and this year the Kentucky Derby, which is always held on the first Saturday of May and it just happened to be on May Day this year. Derby Day is always a favorite event of mine.

My dear friend G___ has graciously opened her home to celebrate the auspicious occasion of the Run for the Roses for many years now, and she always puts on a lavish Southern feast. Her stylish and charming home is filled with great friends clutching monstrous tumblers of mint juleps or flutes of Champagne, her tables and sideboards overflowing with comestibles of every description. Hats are encouraged, although this year I was without, alas. There were a few fine specimens scattered here and there, although nowhere near the spectacle displayed on television.

The highlight of the party, besides G___’s charming conversation and hospitality, is the race itself.  Upon crossing the threshold, G___’s charming beau or her butler-for-the-day presses upon you to blindly select a slip of paper from a porcelain basket with a name of one of the 25 gorgeous beasts running the race that day.

It is incredible how the breeders and owners of the thoroughbred horses can come up with creative and unique names year after year after year. The Kentucky Derby has been run for 135 years and in Kentucky it is *the* social and sporting event of the year. Vast sums of money are spent on the horses and their training, the parties, the dresses, the amazing hats and the wagers on the race. We watched in amazement this year at a man with possibly the world’s worst toupee wagered $100,000 in *cash*, contained in a gleaming golden attache, on a horse called Super Saver. At 18:1 it was a pretty gutsy bet.

No betting is allowed at the party though, however if you selected the winning horse your prize is a bottle of Champagne, so the rooting for *your* horse is loud and impassioned, complete with genteel ribbing along the lines of “my horse looks peppier than your horse”, etc. We gather around the televisions, pretend to know the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” and sing it lustily, wrong words and all, and gasp with amazement and cheer for the longest two minutes of the year.

This year I pulled HomeBoyKris out of the basket, number 19, who placed somewhere around the bottom, sad to say… But Super Saver won! The gentleman with the immense bet did actually win and he was almost levitating with glee. Nothing compares though with the beaming face of Calvin Borel, the winning jockey, and the obvious affection he has for Super Saver as he alternatively stroked the horse’s mane and then pumped his fists in the air in victory.

Before the race started, we gathered around the bar in the kitchen for our choice of libation, and I always prefer a tall mint julep. The butler studiously crushed bag after bag of ice and packed them into highball glasses which were stored in the freezer until needed. The frosty glasses were filled with a dollop of simple syrup then a steady trickle of rich Maker’s Mark bourbon slid between the shards of ice. A large spring of mint leaves were tucked between the ice and the side of the glass and muddled gently. One sips this concoction, slowly, while discussing the merits of your horse, the dichotomy of rain in Kentucky and sunshine in San Francisco, and what delectable dish to start with from the buffet.

Finally, a mint julep!

I arrived a tad early and helped out in the kitchen by frying boneless chicken thighs soaked in buttermilk overnight, dusted with flour and coated with seasoned panko. Crispy, succulent and perfect, we all had to sample a bit of them once they cooled a bit, followed by tidbits of Fire and Ice Pineapple

Meanwhile, G___ had been baking and cooking up a storm and completely outdid herself. She baked tiny corn muffins, made a tangy broccoli and cabbage slaw, a traditional pasta salad with tiny crunchy vegetables, roasted fat asparagus spears with reduced syrupy balsamic vinegar, perfect baked beans, a zippy shrimp étouffée, baked balls of spinach and cheese, and pimento cheese – “the pate of the South” – my personal favorite. There were masses of gorgeous cheeses, a whole spiral glazed ham and tiny rolls to make mini sandwiches, garlic soaked carrots, fat green grapes, and deviled eggs. Can you believe the spread of goodies? It was amazing, and everything was jaw-droppingly delicious.

derby collage 1
(clockwise from top: crunchy fried chicken and a peek at the asparagus; shrimp, chicken and andoille étouffée; the voluptuous ham and rolls; a happy guest’s plate)

And then there were the desserts. The guests were encouraged to bring a dessert to accompany the cut crystal pitchers of G___’s homemade pink lemonade, and they outdid themselves too. Homemade cookies, Dottie’s incredible biscotti, homemade peach and blackberry cobbler, Italian cookies, a blueberry cream cheese crumble from Sweet Things, a fresh fruit topped cheesecake from Tart to Tart, and the best chocolate cake in San Francisco – the devils food ganache cake from Tartine. It was like a bake sale from Heaven.

Derby collage 2
(blueberry cheese crumble cake, Dottie’s biscotti and lemonade, Tartine’s to die for chocolate cake)

After the race we refreshed our drinks, nibbled on desserts and chatted. Invariably I end up in the kitchen with masses of friends, enjoying the breeze from the open windows punctuated by the pop of Champagne corks flying up roof-high from the yard below. It was wonderful to catch up with friends, long-time buddies and new acquaintances, and catch up on the happenings from our last meeting, a few lively discussions of politics and debate on the sad legislature passed in Arizona this week.

It was a beautiful spring day and a great day for a party. Belly methodically packed and a heart full of friendship, I said adieu to my hostess and friends, and sadly relinquished my tenuous grasp on my own southern heritage, and retired for the evening dreaming of roses.

Mint Julep

Happily, one does not have to limit the consumption of a mint julep for the Kentucky Derby. It is a great cocktail for any spring or summer afternoon or evening. Or anytime fresh mint is available! But it is best enjoyed when watching the condensation form on the outside of a tall glass is considered a pleasurable thing. In other words, this might not be the ideal cocktail when the fog is rolling over the City.

A Perfect Mint Julep

Crushed ice
A hefty jigger of bourbon (Maker’s Mark) or 2 1/2 oz
Simple syrup
Mint leaves
“fuzzy water” (sparkling water)

Simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

In a sauce pan pour in the water, then the sugar, and heat the mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cool and store in a jar or bottle in the refrigerator. Besides being an essential for cocktails, it is handy to sweeten iced tea, should your southern roots demand this kind of thing.

For the julep, pack a tall highball glass with crushed ice. Add a tablespoon of simple syrup and then a full jigger of bourbon. With your fingers, gently crush a large sprig of mint leaves and push them into the glass and muddle gently. Add a few tablespoons of fuzzy water if desired.

Sip slowly. Beware of rapid refills.

As Dorothy Parker said:

“I wish I could drink like a lad.
I can take one or two at the most.
Three and I’m under the table.
Four and I’m under the host”

Cheers!

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