Weep No More, My Lady – It’s Derby Day!

Break out your most dazzling, wide-brimmed hats and your top-shelf bourbon! At 5pm Saturday, all eyes will be on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, and millions of TV viewers will drop everything to belt out,”My Old Kentucky Home” in unison.

Kentucky Derby

Hats and high fashion have always been a Derby tradition. Before the first big thoroughbred race in 1875, racetracks were no place for women; they were dirty and raunchy, and Churchill Downs was no exception. But the Kentucky Derby’s founder, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., had a loftier vision: he wanted his race to attract a more affluent, sophisticated crowd. He worked hard to get the upper crust to the track that day, even driving society women door-to-door to tell their friends they were having a picnic at the track and they’d better not miss it!

The Kentucky Derby was an instant hit among the elite – one of the South’s main events of the year and a prime opportunity to show off the latest fashions. In 1901, a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, “The mass of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, all the colors of the rainbow, blending into one harmonious whole was as beautiful a sight as His Eminence in the lead.” (The writer was referring not to the Pope, but to the horse who won the 1901 race.)

Even Derby officials recognize fashion as one of the main features of the event, encouraging “every female to express her inner Southern Belle…”

The other Kentucky Derby tradition we honor, of course, is the venerable Mint Julep. The easy-to-make cocktail was around long before it made its debut at Churchill Downs for  75 cents a pop. Various versions were made with brandy or whiskey throughout the 1700s; some speculate the first Juleps were made with rye or even rum.

Mint Julep

An early reference in 1803 describes the drink as a “dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” It became a Kentucky Derby legend in the late 1930s when a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered a Mint Julep at a pre-race breakfast in Churchill Downs; today the racetrack sells some 80,000 Juleps on Derby weekend. After losing too many of the special silver (or silver-plated) glasses to racing fans who kept them for souvenirs, officials now sell those as well.

You won’t find an easier cocktail: bourbon (or rye), fresh mint, and simple syrup (half sugar, half water, heat until the sugar melts, set aside to cool). That’s it, easy-peasy. Here’s the recipe:

  • Gently muddle a few sprigs of fresh mint in a chilled silver glass or cocktail glass. The key word is gently; the idea is to release the oils from the mint, not massacre it.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of simple syrup.
  • Fill the glass with crushed ice.
  • Add 2 ounces of bourbon or rye.
  • Garnish with more fresh mint and, if you want to fancy it up, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

You can find more complicated recipes, but why would you want to? Like I said earlier, easy-peasy, and enjoy the race!

And since Sunday is Mother’s Day, a special Wine Lingo for my mom, Eva Dakovich Mihaly, who would be 100 years young later this month!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Chablis = Mom’s choice. She spent most of her adult life ordering “whiskey and soda” – and then she and Dad went to Paris and came home wine drinkers. From then on, she drank “Chablis,” which you don’t hear much anymore. The fact is, Chablis is the name of the northernmost wine district in Burgundy – as well as a village inside the Chablis district – where the only grape grown is Chardonnay. Wines produced there are much crisper and more acidic than Chardonnays produced elsewhere; often they’re kept in stainless steel, rather than wood, to preserve their unique edgy character.

Happy Derby Day and Mother’s Day!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Yin (Mint Julep) and Eric Molinsky, CALI Lesson (Derby scene), from Flickr.]

 

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