History of Weird Kentucky Derby Cuisine

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When you are preparing food for your first Kentucky Derby party, you soon become aware that cuisine based around this race is strange. Overall, there are a few standbys that appeal to modern American eaters such as macaroni and cheese, Bourbon Balls, and the trademarked Derby Pie. On the other hand, the list of ingredients and presentation of some Kentucky Derby cuisine is mind-boggling.

Mushy Kentucky Derby stew

Any tourist that visits Churchill Downs for the first time will wonder what Burgoo is. Interestingly, this wacky stew is most likely one of the oldest food traditions in the state. Over time, a core recipe developed that solidified the improvisations that Kentuckians of the past have made to this "Brunswick Stew."

When you look through a recipe for Burgoo, you see that it is basically a three meat vegetable soup cooked down into a stew. Regardless, there is one weird coincidence that you need to remember about Burgoo. In the 1932 Kentucky Derby, a horse named Burgoo King ran in the race and won.

It is not a Derby party without this nut

As a Louisville local and a Kentuckian since the age of four, I have been to private and public Kentucky Derby parties for over 30 years. Although many of these parties contain variations such as alcohol-free, vegan, or pork-free, one item that you will always find at an authentic Kentucky Derby party is pecans.

In addition to being roasted and spiced with chili, they are also found in the traditional Derby-related cuisine like pecan pie and Bourbon Balls. On the surface, you can look at the pecan relationship to the Kentucky Derby and think that it is perfectly normal. However, when you review a cookbook, like "The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook" by Albert Schmid and Dean Fearin, you will be surprised to find pecans are a full-on obsession.

Since there is no evidence online pertaining to the history of pecans at the Kentucky Derby, I went to locals in the Louisville area for suggestions. In their opinion, the reason why the pecan is so essential agrees with Schmid and Fearin's. Mainly, pecans are always a perfect complement to the undertones of the Kentucky Derby's favorite libation and food additive -- bourbon.

Why you will need pickled walnuts

If you are preparing steak for your Kentucky Derby celebrations, there is a topping that will make it authentic. The standard story about the mysterious Henry Bain Sauce is that it was invented by the headwaiter at the Louisville Pendennis Country Club around 1881.

The history is innocent enough, but the strange list of ingredients can be extremely hard to find. Included in this concoction are chili sauce, Tabasco, pickled walnuts, ketchup, A-1 sauce, and Major Grey's chutney. In addition to serving it over steak, the "Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book" by Joy Perrine, Susan Reigler, and Pam Spaulding recommends that it can be poured over a block of cream cheese and served with crackers.

Funny green Kentucky Derby sandwich spread

When you eat a sandwich at a Kentucky Derby party, you will wonder to yourself why it has an odd foamy green spread all over it. Although this recipe can look strange and moldy to outsiders, it is a Louisville staple that is still found in local grocery stores like Rainbow Blossom. The history behind this pastel colored sandwich spread pertains to a Louisville caterer from the late 1800s named Jennie C. Benedict.

The traditional recipe calls for grated onions, cucumber, mayo, and cream cheese. The alarming soft green color of Benedictine is simply food coloring. One strange history fact to note is that Louisville was obsessed with the maker of Benedictine. In the early 1900s, the public found out that she was planning to move to St. Louis. The story passed around about this incident is documented in the "Encyclopedia of Louisville." During that time, locals actually made several public appeals (in the form of begging) to get her to stay.

Strange Kentucky Derby sandwich gets stranger

Most sandwiches are wrapped in waxed paper and sold as fast food. However, you will need a fork and knife for this Kentucky Derby sandwich. The Hot Brown is named after the Brown Hotel where it was invented by Fred Schmidt in 1929. This open faced sandwich is a basic ham and turkey but is covered with a rich slather of Mornay Sauce. Today, it is not uncommon to see the Hot Brown made with cheese instead of Mornay.

While the general appearance of this sandwich is strange enough, alternative recipes can be downright bizarre. Naturally, pimentos, bacon, tomatoes, or other vegetables sound like delicious additions to the Hot Brown. On the other hand, the tradition of canned peaches added to this sandwich does not usually complement modern American palates.

Kentucky Derby food wagon fascination

At first, it can appear that locals that celebrate the Kentucky Derby are fixated with the pioneer lifestyle. In fact, the Kentucky Derby Festival Chow Wagon started in 1971 as a way for the Marlboro cigarette company to advertise. Not to be confused with a Chuck Wagon Derby race, today the Kentucky Derby Chow Wagon is a place where Louisville gathers at Waterfront Park to eat food particular to the traditions of the race.

For this reason, you will find that the pioneer wagon has become part of the authentic Kentucky Derby party experience. In addition, it is not uncommon for Derby party hosts throughout Louisville to use a mini chuck wagon to serve food on.

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Maryam Louise is a longtime resident of the Bluegrass State and has lived in the shadows of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky over the past two decades. In addition to being a fan of horse racing, she has also had a chance to get to know jockeys, horse groomers, and betting clerks as an ESL instructor. Currently, she writes for KentuckyDerby.org and relies on her friends in the multiple facets of the equine industry for writing inspiration.

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