May 062017

Today is the first Saturday in May, the day, traditionally when the Kentucky Derby is run in Louisville, Kentucky, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The race is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbreds at a distance of one and a quarter miles (2 km) at Churchill Downs. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds (57 kilograms) and fillies 121 pounds (55 kilograms). The race is known in the United States by many nicknames including “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” or “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” for its approximate duration, and is also called “The Run for the Roses” for the blanket of roses draped over the winner. It has been run every consecutive year since 1875. This year’s (2017) race will be the 143rd running with a $2 million guaranteed purse.

Derby Day was always a special day in our house when my wife was alive because she was born in Louisville and was extremely proud of her Kentucky heritage. Her family had celebrated Derby Day with a party all the years that she was growing up, and we continued the tradition. I only stopped when she died because it was too sad a reminder. The week before the Derby she would buy racing forms and newspapers with details on the year’s horses and after spending some time poring over them would pick her favorite. Sometimes we had the party at our house, sometimes at a neighbors’ house, but it was always the same: burgoo, cornbread, and mint juleps (recipes below) for everyone with the television on from the morning hours until the race itself.

The food is all traditional, served at the track and in homes all around Kentucky. Other longstanding traditions include the bugle call to post:

. . . the singing of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses are paraded to the starting gate:

. . . not to mention the women’s hats:

. . . and the blanket of roses at the end.

My wife would sit glued to the set through all of this, and always sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with tears pouring down her face. At this point you could either be deathly silent or sing along – otherwise she would kill you. This was the pinnacle of the year for her: more than her birthday, Christmas, New Year, and Easter, even if you rolled them all into one.

In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England to see the Epsom Derby, a famous race that had been running annually since 1780 (and is still run – replete with men in formal wear and women in startling hats). From there, Clark went on to Paris where in 1863, a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French Jockey Club and had organized the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp, which at the time was the greatest race in France. Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for John and Henry Churchill, who provided the land for the racetrack.

The Kentucky Derby was first run at 1 ½ miles (10 furlongs or 2.4 kilometers), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. The distance was changed in 1896 to its current 1 ¼ miles (8 furlongs or 2.0 kilometers). On May 17, 1875, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, a field of 15 three-year-old horses contested the first Derby. Under jockey Oliver Lewis, a colt named Aristides, who was trained by future Hall of Famer Ansel Williamson, won the inaugural Derby.

Although the first race meeting proved a success, the track ran into financial difficulties and in 1894 the New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated with new capitalization and improved facilities. Despite this, the business foundered until 1902 when Col. Matt Winn of Louisville put together a syndicate of businessmen to acquire the facility. Under Winn, Churchill Downs prospered and the Kentucky Derby then became the preeminent stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses in North America. Derby participants are limited to three-year-old horses. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without having raced at age two.

I gave my personal recipe for skillet cornbread here in honor of Aristedes,  and my recipe and thoughts about Kentucky burgoo here in honor of Stephen Foster   Now let’s turn our attention to the classic mint julep. There are scores of variations, but mine is classic. You can use special silver julep cups if you wish. Being poor we used glass tumblers which are perfectly traditional also.

You have to start on the day before (or sooner) by making the mint syrup. It needs time for the flavors to develop. I always picked fresh peppermint from the garden for this. Make a simple syrup by taking one part sugar and one part water in a pan and bringing it to the boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Take it off the heat, dump in a handful of mint leaves, bruise them a little in the syrup, then pour it into a glass jar and leave it overnight (room temperature or refrigerated).

On Derby Day place your tumblers in the freezer in the early morning to chill thoroughly. Strain the mint syrup into a small jug. You’ll need crushed ice. In the early days I attacked a bag of ice with a hammer for this, but later I got an ice crusher attachment for my food processor. To prepare the juleps take the tumblers from the freezer. On occasion we would rim the glasses with powdered sugar. To do this place powdered sugar on a plate about ¼ inch deep and invert the glasses in the sugar and give a little twist. This part is not necessary, it just makes the glasses a little more festive. Place a tablespoon of mint syrup and a few fresh mint leaves in the glass and fill it with crushed ice. Add 2 jiggers of the best bourbon you can find. We always used 100 proof bottled and bond — Gold Maker’s Mark if we could find it. NEVER use Jack Daniels. They make some fine whiskies, but they are not from Kentucky, they are from Tennessee, and, therefore, cannot be designated as bourbon. The amount of bourbon you add is up to you, of course. Deborah made some that were PDS (pretty damn strong !!). Stir with a long-handled spoon and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. Some people (especially bartenders) top off the bourbon with water. This is rank heresy. A classic mint julep is mint syrup, bourbon, crushed ice, and NOTHING ELSE. I don’t drink alcohol any more, so I will forego the pleasure this year; but there’s nothing stopping you.


Jul 042013



Yes, I know full well that today is Independence Day in the United States; a day filled with parades, barbecues, and fireworks.  But people hardly need to be reminded of that fact.  So instead – so as not to stray too far from the theme of the day – I am going to celebrate the birthday of Stephen Collins Foster, sometimes called “the father of American music.”  Those of us who come from parts of the Americas south of the equator are not entirely thrilled that the U.S. has usurped “American” but I’ll let it slide this once.

Foster was born on July 4th 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (not far from Pittsburgh).  For some reason his life and work are filled with common assumptions which are entirely false.  He was not, for example, an unlettered spendthrift who dashed off tunes to make a buck and died a penniless alcoholic.  It’s true that he died in poverty at the age of 37, but the rest has no merit.  He was a hard working, well educated man who made up his mind to be a professional song writer in an era when such a thing was virtually unheard of.  Consider this.  Foster lived in an age before records and radio; in an age when copyright laws were almost completely ignored; in an age when there were no such things as performance royalties nor hungry lawyers waiting to take people to court for performing without paying such royalties.  His only income was either from royalties paid for the sale of his sheet music by the original publishers, or else from outright fees paid at the time of publication.  For “Oh, Susannah,” for example, he was paid $100, and received nothing from its performance nor from unscrupulous publishers who took the sheet music and printed their own versions.

Many of Foster’s songs are often now considered to be nostalgic hymns for the old South.  This is also unfair.  Foster died in the midst of the U.S. Civil War and he was an abolitionist. He was not a Southerner, and barely visited the South. He was not writing about the “good old” past. He was writing about his present in which he saw much he wished could be changed. Many of his songs were written for minstrel shows where the performers were white men in black face.  But he insisted that there be no buffoonery or mocking of slaves as was common in black face performances of the time.  His whole point was that people, slave or free, are subject to identical emotions – love of home and family, care for those in need, desire for a better world . . .

Maybe some of his best loved works – “Camptown Races” “Old Folks at Home” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” “Beautiful Dreamer” – are a bit dated and quaint nowadays, but I still see teary eyes in the stands as people sing “My Old Kentucky Home” while the horses parade to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. He captured something everlasting.  My favorite is a song that still gets a lot of air time and has been recorded and performed innumerable times: “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” It is a fitting epitaph to a man who deserves our praise for his endurance of suffering along with his sorrow for the suffering of others.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Foster died in New York impoverished and alone. He was living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was reportedly confined to his bed for days by a persistent fever. He tried to call for a chambermaid for help in his delirium, but when he got out of bed he collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to Bellevue Hospital. In an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance. His worn leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” along with 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.

Although it is not the right season I have to include a recipe, of sorts, for Kentucky burgoo in Foster’s memory.  The order on Derby Day goes as follows: mint julep (or two or three), singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the race, burgoo and cornbread. Maybe there are more mint juleps in the gaps.  This “recipe” does not have the usual list of ingredients (in Imperial and metric measures) followed by a detailed set of instructions.  I just don’t cook that way – not for burgoo, nor anything else for that matter.  I’m a great fan of dumping stuff into a skillet or pot (based on what I have to hand), and letting things happen – tasting all the time to make sure that what I dish up is worthy.

Kentucky Burgoo

Making burgoo is a two day process (at least).  First day you cook the meats.  There are no set meats.  In “hard times” people put whatever they could find into the pot – rabbit, dove, crow . . . anything that came along.  But, you MUST include at least two meats.  Typically I use about 2 lbs of stewing beef (bone in), ½ lb of salt pork, and a whole chicken jointed.  Put the meats into a big pot and cover them with a rich stock.  Here’s the part that all modern recipes I have read fail to appreciate: you must cook the meats until they are absolute rags.  That means 3 to 4 hours on a slow simmer.  Take the meats out and reserve the stock.  When the meats are cool enough to handle, strip them from the bones, shredding them as you go.  Return the shredded meat to the stock and refrigerate overnight.  Second day, reheat the meat and stock, and add your choice of vegetables.  It is essential to include canned tomatoes (and if you are a good Southerner you will have canned them yourself).  After that I add corn stripped from the kernel, lima beans, and okra. If you choose you can include bell peppers, potatoes, and I don’t know what else. I have my preferences, you are allowed yours. You then cook it all down until it thickens on its own – maybe another two hours at minimum.  Don’t listen to anyone who says you should add thickening agents such as flour or cornstarch.  They are heathens.  Do, however, add salt to taste and mountains of fresh ground black pepper.  Some people (myself included) like burgoo served with pepper sauce.  Whatever your choice, you must have cornbread with your burgoo.

You really cannot make small quantities of burgoo.  My version typically serves about 12 people. As with any stew, burgoo is best the day after it is made.