8 Traditional Kentucky Foods to Serve for the Derby

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When you think of the Kentucky Derby, you probably envision women in elaborate hats and sundresses, men in seersucker suits, and barrels of bourbon for all. You’re not wrong, of course, but for the Southerners who call the Bluegrass State home, the foods and drinks served that first Saturday in May are as worthy of celebrating as the race itself. We’ve rounded up eight of these timeless classics, along with recipe variations that honor the original flavors but add a novel twist. Consider this your complete guide to eating like a horse come Derby day.

1. MINT JULEP

Celebrating the Run for the Roses? The classic Derby cocktail is a non-negotiable. The recipe itself is straightforward—muddled mint, simple syrup, and bourbon over crushed ice—but that doesn’t mean you can’t jazz it up with jalapeños, fruit (try a version with peaches or blackberries), or even beer and basil. No matter which version you choose, make sure it includes crushed—not cubed—ice. The slushier the drink, the more delicious it is.

2. KENTUCKY HOT BROWN

This open-faced sandwich was first served in 1926 at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel and has since become a regional favorite, appearing on the menus of many local restaurants. Sliced turkey and bacon are layered on top of thick bread, then covered in cheesy Mornay sauce and broiled until the bread crisps and the sauce browns. The hotel still serves its signature dish to this day; re-create their recipe, or try a twist on tradition with this adaptation, which reimagines the sammy as a savory tart. If you’re looking to feed a crowd, hot-brown sliders are the perfect party-sized bites.

3. BENEDICTINE SPREAD

Light and refreshing, this spread, which stars cucumbers, onions, and cream cheese, can be spread onto white bread and served as tea sandwiches, or placed out as a dip for vegetables and crackers. The original recipe, created around the turn of the 20th century in Louisville by famed caterer Jennie Benedict, calls for a few drops of green food coloring, but most chefs nowadays prefer to leave out artificial ingredients. It’s a simple recipe, which also means it’s ripe for interpretations. This rendition achieves the green coloring with spinach and adds a kick with green garlic. Dress up the spread even more by sprinkling crumbled bacon or herbs on top.

4. BEER CHEESE

This cheesy dip, best served with warm, soft pretzels, originated in the 1930s in—you guessed it—Kentucky. It’s so ubiquitous in the region that most natives don’t realize it’s not really a thing elsewhere in the U.S. But it should be! There, the gooey goodness appears on most bar menus and packaged versions are sold in grocery stores. While it’s gained popularity in other parts of the country in recent years, you’ll probably still have to whip up your own for your Derby party. Here’s a straightforward version that pairs a full-bodied beer with cheddar, Worcestershire, mustard, and hot sauce. Or go whole hog and make it a main meal, like this recipe for beer-cheese soup.

5. COUNTRY HAM BISCUITS

Salty, cured ham sliced thin, fried, and then layered between buttery biscuits—there might not be a more indulgent Southern specialty that makes the rounds at Derby parties each year. The Louisville food writer Steve Coomes likens country ham, produced mostly in Kentucky and neighboring Southern states, to “hillbilly prosciutto,” and it’s just as mouth-watering uncooked as it is pan-fried. For an update on the classic, slather baked tea biscuits with flavored mustard or butter blends before sandwiching ham slices in between. Can’t get your hands on a ham in time for the party? Make a simplified version with finely diced store-bought ham and mix it into the biscuit batter with a smattering of cheddar cheese before baking.

6. BOURBON BALLS

These boozy bite-sized treats—first devised in 1936 by Ruth Booe, co-founder of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Co. in Frankfort, Kentucky—can be rolled in powdered sugar or dipped in melted chocolate and topped with pecan halves; on the inside, the creamy center usually consists of some combination of bourbon, sugar, butter, chopped pecans, and semisweet chocolate. For a more unique presentation that preserves that sweet, boozy goodness, try a bourbon-ball trifle that layers chocolate cake with bourbon-laced pudding and mascarpone.

7. KENTUCKY BURGOO

A hearty meat stew, burgoo is most often made with chicken, beef, and lamb simmered with vegetables, beans, tomatoes, Worcestershire, sorghum or molasses, ketchup, vinegar, and spices. Nineteenth-century versions of burgoo served around the South frequently included squirrel, opossum, and rabbit, and was gently simmered and stirred for up to 24 hours. While we applaud the stamina of those early chefs, these days a good burgoo can be made in four to six hours. That’s still a commitment, to be sure, but the results—spicy, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food—are worth it. Like gumbo, burgoo has many variations; we’re partial to this one, which uses bourbon in the stock.

8. CHOCOLATE-BOURBON NUT PIE

Though all Kentuckians refer to this confection of chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, and bourbon as “derby pie,” you’ll never see it appear as such in cookbooks, thanks to the aggressively litigious Kern family, who originated the recipe in 1950 and later trademarked the name Derby-Pie™. Whatever you call it, though, it’s become a staple in Kentucky kitchens everywhere, especially at Derby time. You can still order the trademarked version through the Kern’s Kitchen website, but it’s easy enough to whip up your own rendition. Traditionalists will tell you that you have to use walnuts as the nut of choice in the filling, but pecans are often substituted, making the derby dessert essentially a pecan pie with chocolate and bourbon. This version, cleverly known as “Not Derby Pie Bars” tones down the sweetness a bit and reinvents the basic flavors as brownie-like bars.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

Necco Wafers and Sweethearts Are Making a Comeback—Whether You Like It or Not

Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This past Valentine’s Day was a little less sweet without Sweethearts conversation hearts gracing store shelves, but there’s some good news on the horizon. According to CandyStore.com, Necco-brand candies are coming back—well, some of them, at least.

The future of classic candies like Sweethearts conversation hearts, Necco Wafers, Clark Bars, Mary Janes, and Sky Bars has been uncertain ever since the New England Confectionery Company went out of business last year. People sent online retailer CandyStore.com thousands of emails asking what would become of their favorite confections, so the website’s staff painstakingly “tracked down the fate of all the Necco candy brands,” according to a blog post.

Spangler Candy Company, which acquired a couple of the Necco brands, appears to be keeping its promise of bringing back Necco Wafers, Sweethearts, and Canada Mints. However, the new owner is still testing recipes, and the time frame for their return remains undetermined.

“We are committed to making sure these brands meet consumer expectations when they reenter the market," Spangler CEO Kirk Vashaw told the candy website. "Doing it right takes time."

Only one of the original Necco brands, Candy Buttons, is currently available for purchase under new ownership. There is also a good chance that several other candies—including Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mighty Malts, Haviland Thin Mints, Slap Stix, and various flavored chews—will be returning in the future. The rights to many of these brands were bought by different companies, some of which are now experimenting with production methods. For instance, the CEO of the Boyer Candy Company, which now owns Clark Bars, said recent attempts to produce the candy have resulted in Clark Bars “coming out in the shape of hot dogs,” which is not ideal. (Though they reportedly “taste fantastic.”)

As for Mary Janes and Squirrel Nut Zippers: those candies remain in greater peril. The Mary Jane brand is still for sale, and there’s some confusion about who owns the Zippers trademark. The latter can still be bought from CandyStore.com, but sadly, Mary Janes have become nearly impossible to find. “Panic buyers of Mary Janes are really glad they did,” the website states. “Their secret stash is the best place to find them.”

For more details about the future of your favorite Necco candies, check out CandyStore.com’s blog post. In the meantime, you can still find some of the discontinued candies on Amazon and other online retailers, albeit for very high prices.

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