8 Traditional Kentucky Foods to Serve for the Derby

iStock
iStock

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.

12 Strange-But-Real Ice Cream Flavors

ipekata/iStock via Getty Images
ipekata/iStock via Getty Images

I scream, you scream, we all scream for … horse flesh ice cream? Okay, so maybe “we all" don’t. But some people do. A lot of people, in fact. Lobster, foie gras, and ghost pepper, too. Next time you’re craving an ice-cold cone, why not step out of your vanilla/chocolate comfort zone to try one of these 12 strange-but-real ice cream flavors.

1. Horse Flesh

There are two dozen attractions within Tokyo’s indoor amusement park, Namja Town, but it would be easy to spend all of your time there pondering the many out-there flavors at Ice Cream City, where Raw Horse Flesh, Cow Tongue, Salt, Yakisoba, Octopus, and Squid are among the flavors that have tickled (or strangled) visitors' taste buds.

2. Pickled Mango

As one of the country’s most decorated ice cream makers, Jeni Britton Bauer—proprietor of Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams—is constantly pushing the boundaries of unique treats, as evidenced by her lineup of limited edition flavors, including last summer's Pickled Mango (a cream cheese-based ice cream with a slightly spicy mango sauce made of white balsamic vinegar, white pepper, allspice, and clove) and this year's Goat Cheese With Red Cherries.

3. Corn on the Cob

Since opening Max & Mina’s in Queens, New York in 1998, brothers/owners Bruce and Mark Becker have created more than 5000 one-of-a-kind ice cream flavors, many of them adapted from their grandfather’s original recipes. Daily flavor experiments mean that the menu is ever-changing, but Corn on the Cob (a summer favorite), Horseradish, Garlic, Pizza, Lox, and Jalapeño have all made the lineup.

4. Foie Gras

New York City's OddFellows takes the "odd" in its name seriously, and has become synonymous with experimental flavors. Since opening their doors in 2013, they've concocted more than 300 different kinds of the cold stuff—including a Foie Gras varietal.

5. Pear and Blue Cheese

“Salty-sweet” is the preferred palette at Portland, Oregon-based Salt & Straw, where sugar and spice blend together nicely with flavors like Strawberry Honey Balsamic Strawberry With Cracked Pepper and Pear With Blue Cheese, a well-balanced mix of sweet Oregon Trail Bartlett Pears mixed with crumbles of Rogue Creamery's award-winning Crater Lake Blue Cheese. Yum?

6. Ghost Pepper

“Traditional” isn’t the word you’d choose to describe any of the 100 ice cream varieties at The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. They don’t have vanilla, they have African Vanilla or Madagascar Vanilla Bean. But things only get wilder from there, and the shop’s proprietors clearly have a penchant for the spicy stuff. In addition to their Devil's Breath Carolina Reaper Pepper Ice Cream—a bright red vanilla ice cream mixed with cinnamon and a Carolina Reaper pepper mash—there's also the classic Ghost Pepper Ice Cream, which was featured in a Ripley's Believe It or Not book in 2016. Just be warned: you'll have to sign a waiver if you plan to order either flavor.

7. Bourbon and Corn Flake

You never know exactly which flavors will appear as part of the daily-changing lineup at San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe, but they always make room for the signature Secret Breakfast. Made with bourbon and Corn Flakes, you’d better get there early if you want to try it; it sells out quickly and on a daily basis.

8. Fig and Fresh Brown Turkey

The sweet-toothed scientists at New York City’s Il Laboratorio del Gelato have never met a flavor they didn’t like—or want to turn into an ice cream. How else would one explain the popularity of their Fig & Fresh Brown Turkey gelato, a popular selection among the hundreds flavors they have created thus far. (Beet and Cucumber are just two of their other fascinating flavors.)

9. Lobster

Don’t let the “chocolate” in the title fool you: Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Bar Harbor, Maine makes the most of The Pine Tree State’s most famous delicacy with its signature Lobster Ice Cream, a butter ice cream-based treat with fresh (again buttered) lobster folded into each bite.

10. Creole Tomato

The philosophy at New Orleans’ Creole Creamery is simple: “Eat ice cream. Be happy.” What’s not as easy is choosing from among their dozens of rotating ice creams, sorbets, sherbets and ices. But only the most daring of diners might want to swap out a sweet indulgence for something that sounds more like a salad, as it the case with the Creole Tomato.

11. Eskimo Ice Cream

If you happen to find yourself in an ice cream shop in Juneau, remember this: Eskimo ice cream—also known as Akutag—is not the same thing as an Eskimo Pie, that chocolate-covered ice cream bar you’ll find in just about any grocery store. Though the statewide delicacy has usually got enough fresh berries mixed in to satisfy one’s sweet tooth, its base is actually animal fat (reindeer, caribou, possibly even whale).

12. Cheetos

Big Gay Ice Cream started out as an experimental ice cream truck and morphed into one of New York City’s most swoon-worthy ice cream shops, where the toppings make for an inimitable indulgence. One of their most unique culinary inventions? A Cheetos-inspired cone, where vanilla and cheese ice cream is dipped in Cheetos dust.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER