ALTHOUGH the Kentucky Derby itself may be justly dubbed the most exciting two minutes in sports, this 110-year-old event has certainly spawned as many parties as the far lengthier and decades younger Super Bowl. The Derby signifies more than the first tier of racing's Triple Crown. It is a celebration of spring, and a reason to gather friends for an early cocktail buffet serving some classics from southern regional cooking.
This year's "run for the roses" will take place Saturday beneath the shadows of the green and white spires of Louisville's Churchill Downs race track at 5:38 p.m.
While roses are associated with the blanket of flowers draped over the winner, the planters and raised gardens of Churchill Downs are amass with red and yellow tulips. And other vivid hues of all tones are provided by the racing silks of the jockeys' uniforms. You can replicate the colors with a visit to the remnant corner of fabric shops to drape a tablecloth with patches of satin, using tulips as the centerpiece.
Note the hour of the race on your invitations, and start the party about an hour earlier. Many area newsstands carry racing forms for those who might like to learn about the parentage and chances of their horse prior to the race, so have some around.
As traditional as serving eggnog at Christmas is offering frosty mint juleps on Derby Day. In fact, 80,000 of them (made with 150 bushels of mint and 60 tons of snow ice) were served to the more than 108,000 attending the race last year. According to John Mariani's Dictionary of American Food & Drink, the origin of julep is the Persian word "gulab," meaning rose water and indicating a very sweet concoction. Sweet as they may be, however, they are lethal to the uninitiated who may not realize that a few crushed mint leaves and some sugar are all that is diluting straight bourbon.
Traditional julep-making begins two days in advance, by stripping the leaves off the mint stalks and crushing them with powdered sugar and a little water in a jar. This is left to mellow, so the mint flavor strengthens in the syrup, and then a jigger of that mixture is poured over a cup of shaved ice. While natives have generations of silver cups, silver-coated plastic tumblers found in party stores do nicely. Then the cup is filled with bourbon, garnished with a mint sprig and a straw.
To absorb some of the potency of the juleps, serve "old ham and beaten biscuits" as hors d'oeuvres. The "old ham" is cured country ham that can now be purchased already cooked and sliced at most supermarkets, but traditional beaten biscuits, with a consistency somewhere between a cracker and a baking powder biscuit, must be made by hand (a process simplified with the invention of the food processor).
While these should sustain guests until the end of the race, you can continue the evening with an authentic buffet. Mimi Lewis, director of travel development for Kentucky and the daughter of former governor Albert B. (Happy) Chandler, recalls the Derby Day menus served when she lived in Dallas, the first time she was not present at the race. She always included corn pudding, Kentucky bibb lettuce salad, cheese grits, turkey hash, ham and fresh asparagus on her table, and, of course, Derby Pie.
Derby Pie, a chocolate nut pie made with bourbon and walnuts, originated during the 1950s at Kern's Kitchen in Louisville by Walter and Leaudra Kern and carries their registered trademark to this day. In addition, Lewis makes a batch of bourbon balls to further highlight the versatility of the state's official beverage. They're only slightly less lethal than juleps, but at least diners should be well fed enough to handle them. BEATEN BISCUITS
Makes 1 1/2 dozen
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound butter, cut into small cubes and well chilled
1/2 cup ice water
Place the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the butter through the feed tube and process until a fine meal, about 30 seconds. Slowly add the ice water, scrape the sides of the bowl and continue to process the dough for 2 minutes, until very stiff.
Roll the dough on a floured board with a floured rolling pin until it becomes a 1/8-inch thick rectangle. Flour the surface and place one half the dough on top of the other. Cut into 1 1/2-inch circles and bake on greased cookie sheets in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until browned.