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EatBeat: Kentucky Derby Day – Biggest Celebration of the Year for Kentuckians

May 5th, 2012 · 2 Comments

The Kentucky Derby is today, the second Saturday in May

Guest blogger Victoria Malmer recalls growing up in Kentucky, where family traditions surrounding the Kentucky Derby included the Governor’s Derby Breakfast, festive hats, ham biscuits, friendly wagering, roses – and of course, mint juleps.

Kentucky Derby Memories

By Victoria Malmer

Guest blogger for JanNorris.com

I wish I were in Kentucky this week. The energy and excitement generated by Derby is palpable. It is as though the 4th of July, Christmas, and the Super Bowl are all on the same day and related.

Gov. and Mrs. Patton host the Derby Breakfast at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., in May 2000 /photo from Kentucky online archives

The Governor’s Derby Breakfast

Victoria Malmer and brother Stephen in their Sunday best

When I was a kid, we went to the Governor’s Derby Breakfast every year. The capitol grounds are beautiful, filled with blooming trees and flowers, especially red tulips, this time of year. Nearly every house in Frankfort is spiffed up, with flowers on the porch.

I’m from Frankfort, the capital – a major bourbon producer. My whole town smelled like sour mash – a slightly sour, yeasty smell, part of the bourbon-making process – a lot of the time. I’ve been to Derby, sitting in box seats, and in the cheapest seats. I’ve even mingled on Millionaires’ Row, covering Derby for newspapers.

But my favorite memories are of my family’s Derby traditions.

The governor hosted a big breakfast on the lawn of the Capitol each year under a giant tent. There were beautiful southern belles in huge, glamorous hoop-skirted gowns at the entrance, welcoming everyone. Miss Kentucky was usually one of the belles. The governor would be inside, making the rounds, shaking hands, clapping backs, and kissing babies.

Hats like these show up on all kinds of heads at the Derby /cmcdesignstudio.com

People would wear their Sunday best to the breakfast, even if they weren’t going to Derby. If you had a nice hat, you’d wear it. If you didn’t own one, you might borrow one, or re-decorate an old one.

The hats you see on TV on Derby Day today have become parodies, decorated with Churchill Downs’ twin spires and betting tickets. The more outrageous the better.

Real Kentucky ladies wear feathers, tulle or lace on straw hats, mainly in bright colors.

The tables were set with elaborate flower arrangements, china and silver, and the menu was printed for each place setting. Often, there was a blanket of roses on display like the one draped over the winning horse.

Elaborate Southern breakfast

There were long buffet tables, filled to groaning with cheesy grits, salty country ham, biscuits, fruit salad, and all the normal breakfast dishes. Everyone sat at long tables, and got to know their neighbors.

Some years, the governor would plan a sort of festival or party for those not going to Derby, with activities for kids, art shows, live music, a display of hot-air balloons, etc.

Folks with Derby tickets would try to get in and out early, to make the hour-plus drive to Louisville. The governor would leave in a limo, or, later, when John Y. Brown (a businessman who turned KFC into a world brand) was governor, he departed in a helicopter.

Later in the day, my parents would have a Derby party for us three kids, with special snacks. We’d draw horses names out of a hat, and cheer for “our” horse.

As we got older, to keep it interesting, my dad taught us about wagering, and he’d give us each a small amount of money to bet and he’d be the “house,” paying off the winner. They often then left us with a baby sitter and headed off to grown-up Derby parties.

Florida friends oblivious to Derby Day

A silver cup is the only vessel other than glass for a julep. /photo from quintessenceblog.com

When I moved to Florida in 1988, I had to work on Derby Day, which is always the first Saturday in May after the first Friday in May (so it never falls on May Day).

I came to work laden with snacks for my co-workers, the names of the horses cut out of the newspaper so we could draw them from a hat, and my festive Derby attitude. My co-workers were mystified, then when I explained, thought it was pretty funny. I remember calling home and telling my mom, amazed: They didn’t even know it was Derby Day!

Now, some years I go to the dog track, because they Simulcast the Derby and serve mediocre mint juleps in the real “collectible” Derby glasses. But they use mint syrup, or bourbon mixed with “mint flavoring.” I prefer a more authentic julep.

More often, I have a few friends over and make special Southern snacks – cheddar cheese pennies, ham on biscuits, and the must-have mint juleps.

One of my most treasured possessions is an authentic sterling silver julep cup, a gift from my sister when I was maid of honor at her wedding. One person at the party gets that cup, which gets a lovely frost on the outside when filled with julep. The others drink out of assorted Derby glasses collected over many years. They feature the years and names of the horses in past races printed on their sides.

My mint julep

I grow mint all year, because it reminds me of home. So I put a handful of fresh-picked mint in the glass, and “muddle” it gently with a teaspoon of sugar. Then I fill the glass with cracked ice – not cubes! –  and pour a jigger and a half of good bourbon on top. I stir it with a glass cocktail stirrer, because there’s an old wives’ tale that only glass, silver and ice should touch bourbon.

It is a strong drink, but it mellows as the ice melts. I only drink one julep a year, on Derby Day, but the smell of mint and bourbon remind me strongly of the rolling hills, and gentle folk who sing along with My Old Kentucky Home…and I get a little misty.


Victoria Malmer is a web producer for The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she frequently shares her excellent cooking skills with her coworkers.


Tags: Food and Family Intertwine · Today in the World of Food

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken // May 6, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Thank you for that wonderful story. Having spent some time working in Louisville, I appreciate what you are saying. I miss a good Hot Brown and a bourbon at the Seelbach.

  • 2 Victoria // May 7, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Ken, I agree. Nothing compares to a good Hot Brown.

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