When spring returns to Kentucky, so do the Thoroughbreds (I'm talking horses). Native Kentuckians say that Kentucky is the home of beautiful horses and fast women and great Bourbon. Anyone who has ever lived in Kentucky knows that spring is Kentucky's best time of the year. The forsythias, azaleas and dog woods are in bloom, the temperature is perfect and the grass that gives the Blue Grass State its name will soon be going to seed. It is at this time, that the blue of the grass is most apparent to the eye.
Given all of the above, the biggest event of spring in Kentucky is the opening of the racing season which starts with Keeneland's Spring Meet (Lexington, Kentucky) in mid April followed by the running of the Kentucky Derby (Louisville, Kentucky) on the first weekend of May.
I particularly love going to Keeneland not only to watch the races but to see the ladies of Lexington dressed in their finest, wearing hats that would make the Queen of England weep for joy.
If you are lucky enough to be in Lexington during the spring meet at Keeneland, you should plan to get up early in the morning when the dew is still on the grass and go to the track. Admission at this time of the day is free and you will be allowed to visit the horse stalls to see the Thoroughbreds who will be running in the races and will possibly get a chance to talk to the owners, the trainers or even the jockeys. You will be able to observe and time the early morning work outs of the horses. Finally, you will be able to go the cafeteria to eat along side the men and woman who make racing the Sport of Kings. The atmosphere in the restaurant is warm (a nice change after walking around the field in the cool of the morning) and cozy (or crowded, depending on your definition). The breakfast menu is a complete working man's meal in the true cafeteria tradition: greasy and tasty and the conversation (if you care to listen in to the surrounding buzz) can be salty, informative and hilarious (and perhaps you'll pick up a hot tip for the race). And the check for all this is CHEAP.
On the other hand, if you are in Kentucky for the running of the Derby and do not have tickets to the Grandstand at Churchill Downs, I would advise you to visit this historic track on a day when there are no races or when the races are not of great import. During Derby day, the track is as crowded and as crazy as Times Square (NYC) on New Year's Eve. You will not be able to see any significant part of the race. You will not be able to find a bathroom quickly and when you do find one you will wait and wait and wait for the opportunity to relieve yourself in private (a particular problem for women). You will not find a place to eat although there are vendors on the outside of the track where you may purchase a hot dog (the heart burn that sets in later is part of the charge). However, if you are in the mood to mingle with drunken frat boys and their girls, (the campus of the University of Louisville is a short walk away) the in-field may be your cup of tea. Otherwise, you can see the race on TV or you can get yourself invited to the ubiquitous parties that are held by native Kentuckian's all over the Commonwealth. Don't worry about finding an invitation to one of these since you can just start a casual conversation with any native and you'll probably find yourself invited to one. No matter where you see the Derby, don't forget to catch the singing of "My Ole Kentucky Home" at the end of the race (guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of any listener, especially if you've been drinking Mint Juleps. Mint Juleps are a particular tradition on Derby Day in Kentucky).
When you are in Lexington, I would advise you of the following: go to desha's (a restaurant in downtown Lexington) and get a piece of their Cornbread with Honey Butter (recipe to follow); and make sure you go to Roger's Restaurant (a bit out of downtown on Harrodsburg Road) for their Wilted Lettuce Salad (recipe to follow). Roger's is an old Lexington landmark and a favorite with old Lexingtonians and some in the race horse industry. I am really not recommending the food in general, although I've had worse...but I really like that salad.
While in Louisville, treat yourself to a meal at the Brown Hotel. This is an old Louisvillian landmark and a fabulous Hotel with a good restaurant. It is also the creator of the Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich (recipe to follow). I've never seen the Hot Brown served outside of Kentucky, but it is a great sandwich which can be had in just about any restaurant in Kentucky.
And finally, while I am sharing recipes I will offer one for the Mint Julep (see below). This particular recipe comes from an old Kentucky family's private recipe file and as this drink goes this is a pretty good recipe (although to be truthful, I don't really like this drink), but, as I said, it is a Kentucky Derby tradition and as they say: "When in Rome, do as the Roman's do" or as they do in Lexington and/or Louisville, Kentucky.
3 cups self rising corn meal
1/3 cup sugar
1½ cup vegetable oil
3 cups sour cream
2 and 2/3 cups cream style corn
1¼ cups softened butter
½ cup butter
Combine first 6 ingredients in the order listed and mix well. Pour into greased 9 by 13 inch greased pan and place in preheat oven (350 degrees F.) and bake for 30 about minutes. Makes 12 good sized squares.
Mix equal amount of softened butter and honey together. Serve with warm cornbread.
Wilted Lettuce Salad
6 generous handfuls (about 12 cups) fresh leaf lettuce
2 green onions, sliced thinly
6 slices thick-sliced smoked bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly. Place the lettuce and onions in a serving bowl. Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let it drain on paper towels, leaving the bacon drippings warm in the skillet over low heat. Add the vinegar and sugar to the bacon drippings, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and cook the mixture until it is very hot, but not smoking. Pour the hot dressing over the lettuce and onions, tossing to coat and wilt the greens. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately after pouring the hot dressing over the lettuce and onions because once you do this step, the salad won't keep. Makes 4 servings.
Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature and beaten
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 cup prepared whipped cream
8 slices toasted white bread, crust trimmed off
1 pound cooked turkey breast, thinly sliced
Grated Parmesan cheese for topping
1 (2-ounce) jar diced pimientos, drained (optional, I don't like pimientos)
8 bacon slices, fried crisp
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Gradually add flour, stirring constantly, until smooth and free from lumps. Gradually stir in milk until sauce comes to a gentle boil, stirring constantly; remove from heat. Add Parmesan cheese and stir until melted and well blended.
In a small bowl, beat egg. Gradually add 1 cup of hot sauce, 1/3 cup at a time, to the egg, stirring constantly. Gradually add egg mixture to remaining sauce, stirring constantly until well blended; add salt and pepper to taste. Fold in whipped cream.
For each Hot Brown sandwich, place two slices of toasted bread on a metal (or flameproof) dish. Cover the toast with a liberal amount of turkey. Pour a generous amount of sauce over the turkey. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until the sauce is speckled brown and bubbly. Remove from broiler, sprinkle with diced pimientos (optional, as I said, I don't like pimientos), and cross two pieces of bacon over the top of the sandwich, and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings of two open-faced sandwiches each.
Mint Julep (special thanks to k.a.s., of Oldham County, Ky.)
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water (branch water is best)
Fresh Mint (this grows like a weed in Kentucky gardens)
Kentucky Bourbon (2 ounces per serving) (Note: I like Jim Beam, but any good--and they're all good--Kentucky Bourbon will do).
Make a simple mint syrup by boiling sugar and water together for 5 minutes; cool. Place in a covered container with 6 or 8 bruised mint sprigs. Refrigerate overnight. This makes enough syrup for about 44 juleps. To "bruise" mint: Put some leaves or sprigs in a cup and press the leaves lightly, a time or two, with the bowl part of the spoon. This releases the minty fragrant of the leaves).
Make a julep by filling a julep cup or glass with crushed ice (NEVER ICE CUBES), and then add 1 tablespoon of your mint syrup and 2 ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost outside of cup or glass. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.
Mint Julep Tips:
1. Always use premium Kentucky bourbon (I can't stress this enough)
2. Use crushed or shaved ice and pack in cup (Never, never Ice Cubes which would be Barbaric).
3. Add a straw, cut to protrude just above the rim of the cup, and serve. You should be able to get a faint smell of the mint sprig when you're sipping.
4. Keep the covered syrup in the refrigerator (after removing the mint leaves) if you don't plan on drinking all the servings.