|This is the hat I made for my sister-in-law for a derby party last weekend. It won first prize. She wanted a fresh bloom from her sister's garden. It took me longer to find this magnolia blossom than it did to assemble the hat.|
My wife and her sisters are from Kentucky. As Kentucky girls, they have an affinity for all things Bluegrass, and this naturally includes the preeminent Kentucky event, the Kentucky Derby. Wherever they are, the girls love to throw a derby party. I've been to more than I can count. I went to one last weekend.
I like a derby party. I like horse racing. I used to be a pretty fair handicapper. Early in my working life I was doing the night audit at a chain hotel in Lanham, Maryland. Every day I'd get off work at 7:00 a.m., pore over the Racing Form at breakfast, and head out to the Bowie race track to play the ponies. It was a good time for me. Life was full and interesting. I was well on my way to becoming a punter of some note when I decided to change course, finish my education, and become a responsible adult instead. Sometimes I wonder what would have become of me if I'd kept following the horses. Probably I would have come to no good end—broke, depressed, and drinking too much...Oh, wait!
A lot of arcane horse knowledge isn't of much use at a derby party. People who go to derby parties aren't there for the horse racing. They are there for the food and the drinks and the fancy hats. It's just as well because a good handicapper is handicapped by a field of 20 young and little-tested thoroughbreds. Everybody likes to pick a winner, even the pros, but most of the money bet on big races like the Derby is bet by rank amateurs. The real horse players stay home on Derby day, just like the real drinkers stay home on New Year's Eve. It's just too hard to compete with the foolishness.
Fortunately for me, I also like the food, the beverages, and the fancy hats, even though all of these things, at least as they relate to Derby Day, are just humble country fare tarted up to look genteel. Among the favorites:
- Burgoo—this is nothing more than stew, and is a featured dish at a lot of barbecue joints and church suppers throughout Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. It was originally made with whatever ingredients came readily to hand. Its humble origins are evident in old-time recipes, which often feature squirrel, opossum, and venison. Modern versions usually contain pork, chicken, and mutton or beef. Personally I love this stuff, and I often make a big pot to take to the derby parties to which I am invited. It is hearty and delicious and it will feed an average family for a week before anyone gets really tired of it. It is not genteel, however, until you serve it up in tiny cups with tiny spoons to people who have traveled from the far-flung reaches of the globe to watch spindly horses race their hearts out. It helps if you pronounce it in such a way as to make it sound vaguely French. It also helps if, as is usually the case at the Kentucky Derby, people start drinking really early
- Hot Browns—the quintessential Kentucky open-faced sandwich, named for Louisville's Brown hotel where it was first served in 1926. Toast and a layer of sliced turkey breast are topped with bacon, slathered in mornay sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and broiled until the sauce starts to brown. The sandwich is then topped with tomato or pimiento, although many folks do this before the broiling. It hardly matters because it is almost impossible to screw one of these up. Some are better than others, naturally, but unless you're doing a side-by-side comparison, you won't notice the difference. The flavor is nearly always sublime. The hot brown's claim to gentility lies in the use of the mornay sauce, which is a bechamel sauce with grated cheese—usually a combination of gruyere and parmesan. This certainly ennobles a proper hot brown's DNA, but the fact is that many places serve them using a white cheddar or American cheese sauce, and only a fussy purist would argue with the result, especially on Derby Day when, as I have already pointed out, the drinking begins early.
- Mint Juleps—bourbon for girls. This is perhaps the most egregious gentrification associated with the Derby. A mint julep consists of only 4 ingredients: bourbon, sugar, fresh mint, and ice. The mint is muddled in the bottom of a tumbler with a teaspoon of sugar. Cracked ice is added to fill the tumbler nearly full. Then the bourbon is poured in to fill the glass. The result is garnished with a fresh mint sprig. The bourbon makes this a potent and definitively Southern concoction. The ice, sugar, and mint are meant to make it palatable to women. Women will not usually sip (or gulp) bourbon straight. It's not lady-like. But they will sip a julep through a straw and giggle behind their hands and under their great canopied hats. Men like to have their women drinking on special occasions, and the Derby calls out for a certain amount of revelry, celebrating as it does things that are mostly made fun of in the other 49 states the rest of the year. On Derby Day everyone wants to be from Kentucky in much the same way that everyone wants to be Irish for St. Paddy's. This is why celebrities show up in droves for the Derby. They want to be associated, if only for the day, with the high-pedigree traditions of the Old South on the only day of the year when everyone agrees to overlook it's dark, hide-bound excesses. The mint julep is a perfect symbol of this brief truce between the homespun and the cultured, the plain and the cultivated, because, bottom line, a mint julep is just 'corn squeezins' in drag.
- The Hats—art in adornment. There is something about a woman in a hat. Maybe it's the added mystery created by concealing the upper parts of their faces in shadow. Maybe it's the way a hat magnifies the slightest nod or tilt of the head or arched brow, into a dramatic expression. A woman is more sophisticated, alluring, and beautiful when she is under a hat than when she is not. A baseball cap will do, or a pillbox with a veil, or a fascinator with a long feather curling out of it like a scimitar. They're all good in my book, but a derby hat, a great, floppy, wide-brimmed parade float of a hat is unparalleled in this regard. Apparently I am not alone in thinking this. There is a lot of media coverage of the hats on Derby Day. The day after the Derby, lists are published in newspapers and shown on TV and on the Internet of the best and worst of the hats. Some people tune into the Derby coverage just to see the hats in much the same way that people who don't care a fig about sports watch the Superbowl for the commercials. The hats are a phenomenon unto themselves. Derby hats are the pinnacle of the milliner's art. It would not surprise me to learn that many women start thinking about next year's hat the day after the current year's Derby. Certainly some of them need to start saving up for their hat that far in advance, for a stunning, custom-made hat by a name designer can cost a small fortune—as much as a good serviceable horse. Still it is wise to keep in mind that what is now viewed by many, including me, as high artistic expression, had its beginnings in a simple bonnet with a wide enough brim to keep the sun from raising up freckles on the china white shoulders of Louisville belles.
Hunter S. Thompson wrote a funny piece on the Kentucky Derby in 1970 titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” It is widely held to be his first foray into the 'gonzo journalism' that made him at least infamous amongst the chroniclers of then contemporary life. It was first published in Scanlan's Monthly, accompanied by artwork from Ralph Steadman. I heartily recommend it to your attention.
Today almost everyone who blogs and finds themselves accountable to no one for fact checking or personal spin is practicing gonzo journalism. Just remember though, when you read something that is too profane and too personally involved to be of much use furthering your decision making, that Thompson invented this stuff when writers were still held accountable, and when he eventually killed himself, he avoided any complicity in its mainstreaming.