The first Saturday in May is a holiday for us, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Special foods, serving pieces, decorations, time-honored traditions. Derby parties are a great reason to celebrate wonderful spring weather, but they’ve become an enduring connection to my hometown. Where ever we’ve lived, we’ve had Derby parties to share this shining Louisville moment with friends and family.
To host a Derby party for non-Kentuckians, there is pressure, as cultural ambassadors, to represent the very best Kentucky has to offer. Since most people only know about mint juleps, everything else on the menu seems exotic. Benedictine sandwiches, cheese grits, country ham, Derby pie, Henry Bain sauce. And if I’ve thought ahead enough to order them, modjeskas and bourbon balls from Muth’s. Country ham is usually the hardest to come by – no one in Delaware had even heard of it – so I’ve had to settle for lesser pork, but the sandwiches are still yummy.
We have a collection of Derby glasses – the inexpensive ones that juleps are served in at Churchill Downs. There’s a new design each year including a list of all of the past Derby winners. While silver julep cups would be classier, we proudly use our Derby glasses. It’s also a great time to pull out all of the Hadley Pottery and Louisville Stoneware serving pieces.
Guests get a Derby pin and a horse selection when they arrive. My husband has tried to learn the intricacies of para-mutuel betting so he can run the betting pool. One year we had a lawn-chair Derby on our drive-way: guests towing a lawn chair competing like the horses, governed by a roll of the dice (you had to be there). We awarded Derby Festival shirts and cups as gifts.
While watching the coverage on TV, we add color commentary based on our memory: people in the neighborhood around the track sell parking spots on their lawns, the infield is a crazy sea of humanity, natives go to the track on Friday for the Oaks, the dirt on the track is soft and deep (we know this because we ran a 10K that finished on the Churchill Downs track).
Then everything focuses in on the main event. The trumpeter calls the horses to the track, everyone stands to sing My Old Kentucky Home (cue me crying), and “they’re off!” No matter how many times I watch “the most exciting 2 minutes in sports”, I still hold my breath until they cross the finish line.
When you leave Churchill Downs, the ground is littered with discarded betting tickets. Trampled by the overflow crowd, they’ll get swept up the following day, as the city begins the adjustment back to normalcy. So we eat our leftovers, make room for a jar of mint simple syrup in the refrigerator, and carefully pack up the Derby glasses till next year.