Derby weekend in Louisville is much more than horses, roses and My Old Kentucky Home. It is a three-day festival of eating, drinking and merrymaking. The drinking, of course, is bourbon. And the eating is the kind that should banish forever the Yankee notion that grits, turnip greens, fried chicken and corn pone are all there is to southern cooking. The big do of Derby Saturday—besides the race itself—is breakfast. At the Derby Breakfast given each year by Barry Bingham, who runs the Louisville Courier-Journal, a buffet is set under a canopy of white and pink dogwood trees on a lawn overlooking the Ohio River. The breakfast guests are served mint juleps in silver julep cups, and plied with creamed sweetbreads and Kentucky ham (which, says Louisville's naturally partisan cookbook author, Marion Flexner, is so tender that it makes Virginia ham seem like chipped beef). Silver-dollar-size cornmeal-batter cakes are served with pitchers of melted butter and cane syrup. There is a salad of avocados with Kentucky Bibb lettuce—a tender product of the soil that makes bluegrass grow.
The most famous of all Derby dishes, however, is the one known as burgoo—Kentucky's version of what Scarlett O'Hara would have called Brunswick stew down in Georgia. On Derby Sunday thousands of Kentucky colonels, their friends and their ladies eat the burgoo, among other things, at a barbecue held for charity in an encampment in the trees near Anchorage. Sides of beef, hundreds of chickens, turkeys and suckling pigs are roasted over a barbecue pit half a block long. And men using canoe paddles stir the savory stew in iron pig-skinning pots. Preceded by a couple of juleps, and served with a Bibb lettuce salad, burgoo can bring the spirit of Kentucky to a Derby-TV party as far away from the Bluegrass country as Anchorage, Alaska is from Anchorage, Ky. Here's how Marion Flexner makes it.
1 pound lean beef
1 small hen
½ pound baby lamb
Butter or bacon fat
6 quarts water
Bunch of celery tops
Salt and black pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups sliced okra
4 carrots, thinly sliced
3 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 turnip, thinly sliced
4 branches celery, chopped
2 medium potatoes, thinly sliced
2 green peppers, seeded and diced
1 quart tomatoes, fresh or canned
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup corn kernels, cut from the cob
Cut meat into pieces and fry in fat until golden brown. Remove to a heavy soup kettle with a tight-fitting lid. Pour water over meat. Add celery tops, 1 onion, salt, pepper, cayenne, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce. Cover pot. When mixture comes to a hard boil, reduce heat and simmer 4 to 5 hours, or until meat falls from bones. Remove meat, and strain broth. Return broth and lean meat to pot. Sauté all vegetables except tomatoes and corn in same fat in which meat was browned. Add to broth. Discard extra fat in pan, put in tomatoes and sugar and bring to a boil. Pour contents of pan over meat and vegetables. Correct seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce if necessary. Cover pot, and when mixture boils, reduce heat once more. Cook slowly until all the vegetables are very tender and the liquid has reduced, but do not let it cook to a mush—add more water if necessary. Add the corn kernels and cook l/2 hour longer, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking or scorching. Burgoo should be very thick. Serves 12.
When the weather's fine on the morning of Louisville's Derby Day, breakfast parties are held out of doors on the bluegrass, with the spring sun glinting on julep cups and silver trays filled with the triumphs of Kentucky's kitchens.