Saturday marks the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. But the real joys of the day are gustatory, not equestrian.
The Derby’s mix of nostalgia, gallantry, and hedonism is unmistakable in the delicacies served around Louisville this time of year, which go far beyond the Kentucky clichés of fried chicken and bourbon.
So before you hop into your rose-pink Cadillac and start making bets, invest in these treats that prove the Kentucky Derby is decadent and delicious:
This isn’t the herbal liqueur made by monks, but rather a cucumber-cream cheese spread invented in Louisville over 100 years ago. With the unexpected zip of onion, Benedictine can be an acquired taste, but when done right, it’s creamy and refreshing, and a nice accompaniment to any meal or sandwich. It’s an easy recipe if you want to make it at home. Just don’t dye it green.
The suddenly-chic mixture of pimento peppers, mayonnaise, and cheese can now be found on hamburgers and in croissants, but it does just fine on its own, served as a dip or any method befitting its nickname as “the pâté of the South.” Start developing your own signature mix of ingredients now, and then delight in telling admirers this down home dish isn’t actually Southern in origin.
The first rule of Derby Pie is to never call it Derby Pie; that name is legally—and controversially—owned by a Louisville restaurant whose litigiousness is the stuff of culinary legend. The precise recipe varies as much as the name, but the constant ingredients are chocolate, bourbon (because Kentucky), and either walnuts, pecans, or walnuts and pecans.
It doesn’t sound appetizing, but the Hot Brown sandwich is the perfect meal for either a late night or a late morning. Invented at Louisville’s Brown Hotel, the Hot Brown is a turkey and bacon sandwich topped with Mornay sauce (a cheesy Béchamel) and tomatoes. Though it’s called a sandwich, it’s only served open-faced, and is strictly a knife-and-fork affair, which can sometimes befuddle post-Derby revelers.
These salt-cured, aged hams can be found hanging (sometimes with a fine layer of mold) in barns and butcher shops across the Southeastern United States. Finely shaved, it’s the South’s prosciutto. Cut into steaks and slabs, it’s incredibly salty and needs to be soaked or steamed before becoming tolerable. For bonus points, boil it in Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper before frying.
In a tragic twist befitting Faulkner (or, sweetly, perhaps Twain), Kentucky’s best candy is too delicate to survive in the late-spring heat. The Modjeska (named after a famous dancer) is a marshmallow covered in caramel. It’s chewy in many ways, and popping one in your mouth is a perfect excuse to stop talking to that hot shot from Macon who keeps trying to pass off horse tips.
A Real Mint Julep
Derby season is a time when most Kentuckians begrudgingly choke down their annual mint julep. That’s because most mint juleps aren’t very good. They’re either as sweet as soda or mintier than Colgate. Lazily-prepared and prepackaged juleps disgrace an otherwise excellent cocktail, though. A proper mint julep is cool and warm simultaneously, and, with the aroma of mint and whiskey rising with every sip, better for your nose than anything else you can find at a bar.
To make your own, muddle mint in the bottom of a glass, then discard the mint. Mix one part sugar, one part water, and three parts bourbon together and top with a lot of crushed ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint and drink slowly. If it’s too strong, either wait for the ice to melt or add a little more sugar and water.
Gabe Bullard is the Deputy Director of Digital News at National Geographic. He’s spent 14 nonconsecutive years in Kentucky, and is a certified Kentucky Colonel. He has never won a Derby bet. Find him on Twitter.