Derby time in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is a big deal. Partying begins weeks before the festivities at Churchill Downs with fireworks, festivals, concerts, and, of course, lavish gatherings. It’s no surprise that even when we leave the Bluegrass, we still see the first Saturday in May as a reason to look fancy and party. (Unless, apparently, you are a Dartmouth sorority and will henceforth miss out on everything that is wonderful about this historic event.) Even if you aren’t a native of Kentucky, we still encourage you to share in the revelry that is – according to Hunter S. Thompson – decadent and depraved about the Kentucky Derby. But I am going to focus on the decadence here; I’ll leave the depravity up to you.
As a member of the Kentucky Society of Washington, I take part in planning and throwing the biggest Pre-Derby Party event in the DC area (pre- since we do not want to tread on anyone’s plans for actual Derby Day). This event bring folks in from the Bluegrass, DC area denizens with Kentucky roots, and people who know Kentuckians throw one heck of a party. This year, we hosted hundreds of guests at a lovely riverfront venue in Alexandria, VA (shout out to River Farm!). We had mint juleps, country ham, fried chicken, biscuits, bourbon balls, burgoo, Benedictine, beer cheese, and a wide assortment of other Kentucky fare. It is a big production requiring dedication and many volunteer hours and many cases of Maker’s Mark.
Now, I know not everyone has months to plan a Derby shindig, so I am here to provide a quick guide to throwing a pretty authentic Derby party that will take a maximum of two days to prep for.
THE ATTIRE AND THE DECOR
Yes, I realize the booze is important, but you must set the mood of the party with the right duds.
For the ladies: Think of the Derby party as a done-up garden affair. You can never go wrong with a sundress, especially in bright colors. If dresses aren’t your thing, make sure you keep the palette springy and include a colorful top or bottoms. HATS, HATS, HATS! I don’t care if you have to dig your beach hat out of the garage, but wear a hat! It is one of my favorite Derby traditions and this is a day when bigger really is better. (If you have some time, see if your town has a local hat shop. Usually, these tiny places really know hats and can match a hat in an instant to any outfit).
For the fellas: If you have seersucker, wear it! All of it! Pastels are highly encouraged. Hats are also encouraged – these are not just for the ladies. Bowties are also very apropos.
For the décor: The Derby is the Run for the Roses for a reason – the winning horse is shrouded in a bed of roses (made every year by the fine folks at Kroger). So snag a couple dozen roses and voila! Derby decorations are done! If you want to get really cute, cut out some jockey silks and hang them around your house. They come in a great variety of colors and designs, so they add quite a bit of pizzazz.
The list of delicious foods from Kentucky is truly endless. However, I will narrow it down to some quintessential Derby foods and Kentucky fare. Or, if you are just feeling lazy, you can always pick up some KFC.
Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie
Most everyone knows of Derby Pie – a luscious chocolate, walnut pie – but most people don’t know that it is a trademark held by Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville, KY. These pies are delicious and can be found in the freezer section at most grocery stores in Kentucky (I don’t know their full distribution but you can found out at www.derbypie.com). However, if you don’t have access to the official Derby Pie, you can make a favorite of mine: Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie. These are the same ones we serve at the Pre-Derby Party!
This is one of those “don’t judge ‘til you’ve tried it” dishes. Trust me, though; they are delicious and are a hit with guests. These are best served as finger sandwiches made with, yes, white bread. This recipe from the Kentucky Derby website is pretty simple, but I would say go ahead and add that tiny drop or two of green food coloring for extra authenticity. Just make sure you cut the crust off of your bread; these are tea sandwiches and we are all civilized people! Recipe: https://www.kentuckyderby.com/party/recipes/southern-sides/benedictine-spread
Besides fried chicken, the Hot Brown is essentially the state dish of Kentucky. Conceived of at the Brown Hotel in Louisville – the home of the Derby – as an addition to their late-night menu, this is a perfect snack at a bourbon party. Here is a good recipe for bite-sized Hot Browns.
NB: Instead of phyllo, you can also use crescent roll dough into a mini muffin-tin. Also, I suggest adding a bit of country ham into the mix for an added layer of flavor.
Pimento Cheese is a Southern staple. It is great served with crudité or on sandwiches. And it’s very easy to make! Just mix 2 cups of shredded cheese (I prefer using sharp cheddar and Monterey jack in equal parts, but you can also use white cheddar or other similar cheeses), ½ cup mayo (I prefer Duke’s), 1-2 tablespoons of very finely chopped onion, 1 small jar of pimentos (chopped up), dash of garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste. If you like spicy, add in some cayenne pepper to taste. Pimento cheese is not an exact science so play around with it – add other things. Some people put dill in it, some put cream cheese, you can add crumbled bacon or country ham – do whatever you like!
PRE-DERBY PARTY CHOCOLATE BOURBON PECAN PIE BARS
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- ½ cup butter, softened
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¾ cup corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons bourbon (I prefer cooking with Ancient Age)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 bag (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips (1 cup)
- Heat oven to 350° (if using dark or nonstick pan, heat oven to 325°). Beat flour, brown sugar and butter in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed, or mix with spoon. Press mixture on bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of ungreased rectangular pan, 13x9x2 inches. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.
- Stir remaining ingredients in medium bowl until well mixed. Pour over partially baked crust.
- Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until set. Cool about 15 minutes. Refrigerate at least 1 hour until firm. For bars, cut into individual pieces. Store covered in refrigerator.
This is really the easy part. You need to absolutely be serving two things at any Derby party: bourbon and Mint Juleps. Now, thankfully, Bourbon & Banter is a trove of whiskey suggestions, so I encourage you to peruse and find a good fit for your palate. But for goodness sake, just make sure it’s from Kentucky. This is, after all, the Kentucky Derby.
As for Mint Juleps, fellow B&B contributor, Thomas Fondano, provides a pretty quick and dirty intro to the julep (in both mint and non-mint varietals) that will go swimmingly with your Derby Day spread. Just remember: CRUSHED. ICE. Pro tip: if you don’t have quick access to crushed ice, either ask a local ice distributor or inquire with your grocery store seafood counter. They usually have an ice crusher for their displays (just make sure it’s fresh ice – no one wants a fishy julep).
The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, and it does take only about two minutes for those 20 or so 3-year-olds to run the 10 furlongs of the race. Fortunes are made and lost in those two minutes; the winning jockey gets a car and the chance to move on to compete in the other two legs of the Triple Crown and breeders rejoice since their potential stud fees just skyrocketed. So be sure you have a TV that gets NBC. The pre-show is worth it to see all of the hats and celebrities. But mostly the hats.
Be sure to print out the field (the list of horses running) before guests arrive and have it available. I always like to do an informal pot in which guests pick a horse (or two) out of a hat and put a couple of bucks into a pot. Once the race is run, you can divvy it up between Win, Place, and Show.
Four Roses and pimento cheese photo courtesy of China Riddle.