Page 2's guide to throwing a Kentucky Derby party   

Updated: May 2, 2008, 2:32 PM ET

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The Kentucky Derby is Saturday. You probably know that it takes place in Kentucky, that it has something to do with horses, and that it's one of the most celebrated sporting events of the year. And that's probably all you know about it, because most people don't follow thoroughbred racing.

Big Brown

AP Photo/Al Behrman

Are you ready to party like it's the Run for the Roses?

Fortunately, you don't have to know squat about the ponies to enjoy Derby Day. That's because the Derby isn't really about horse racing -- it's about getting a bunch of friends together, turning on the TV and eating and drinking. Yeah, you could say the same thing about the Super Bowl, but at least that game takes four hours to play. The Derby is over in two minutes -- you could miss the whole thing just standing in line for the john. And let's face it, you're probably not going to win any money betting on the race (you don't know anything about this sport, remember?). So the eating and drinking are pretty much all you've got.

But you don't want to eat and drink just anything. It's the Kentucky Derby, after all, so you want to have bona fide Kentucky fare on hand (and this isn't gonna cut it). Don't know anything about what they serve in the Bluegrass State? No worries -- Page 2 is here with a handy guide to throwing your own authentic Kentucky-themed Derby Day party, which you can do in four easy steps.

A good place to start is the oddly named but completely delicious hot brown, an open-faced turkey-and-bacon sandwich topped with a bubbling-hot cheese sauce that tastes even better than it sounds. It was invented in 1923 at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, where it remains an institution.

First things first: When saying "hot brown," put the emphasis on the first syllable. It's not a hot brown; it's a hot brown. Failure to observe this protocol will result in mockery from true Kentucky-ites (except the ones who pronounce it the other way) and diminish the dish's sublime pleasures.

So how do you make it? The folks at the Brown Hotel have generously posted their recipe here. True, this will require you to take the highly adventurous step of actually turning on your stove, but Derby Day comes only once a year, so quit griping and learn how to cook something other than Ramen noodles for a change. Look, the hot brown's got bacon, cheese and toast, which are three of your major food groups right there, so think of it as Kentucky health food and get cookin'.

But if you can't be bothered to turn on the stove -- or if you just want something else for people to gnaw on -- get yourself a Kentucky ham. This ham isn't glazed -- it's cured, hung and smoked, America's answer to prosciutto. The result is salty, chewy, smoky, salty, nutty, and did I mention salty? Addictive stuff. The bad news is that the best source, Colonel Newsom's, has already sold out of its most recent batch and won't have any more ready until this fall; the good news is that the hams from Father's and Scott are almost as good. OK, so the express-shipping charges may end up costing more than the ham itself, but it's probably cheaper than driving to Kentucky. Well, unless you live in southern Indiana. Or northern Tennessee. Or certain parts of Illinois, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri or West Virginia. Seriously, have you ever noticed how many states are adjacent to Kentucky?

Jenny McCarthy

AP Photo/Brian Bohannon

Also welcome on Derby Day, very large hats.

Now where were we? Oh, right: Kentucky ham. It's the bomb. Get one.

You're gonna need some sort of dessert, and there's really only one option here: the irresistible chocolate chip and walnut confection known as derby pie. Or, rather, Derby-Pie® -- the capitalization, hyphen and trademark symbol are all mandated by Kern's Kitchen, the bakery that invented the dish back in the 1950s, trademarked the name in 1968 and has zealously policed that trademark ever since. How zealously? So zealously that the Kern's people once sued their own chocolate chip supplier, Nestlé, for including a "Tollhouse Derby Pie" recipe on its packaging.

Nobody wants to deal with the Kern's legal team, so dessert menus in Kentucky tend to feature wink-wink listings like triple crown pie, race day pie, winner's circle pie and so on (along with horse race pie and thoroughbred pie, which don't sound too appetizing). But in everyday chitchat, it's always just derby pie.

By any name, it's totally killer. Imagine a really rich chocolate pecan pie, only crunchier, and you'll get the idea (plus I like to up the Kentucky quotient by adding some bourbon to the mix). I suppose it's no good for people who don't like butter and chocolate, but anyone who fits that description probably doesn't belong at your party anyway. And don't let the idea of baking a pie scare you -- it's fine to use a frozen pie shell, and after that it's as easy as stealing a base off of Mike Piazza. Trust me, you can do this. Here's how:

    Set your oven to 350 degrees. While it's heating up, get a big mixing bowl and beat together four eggs, a cup of light corn syrup, 3/4 cup of light brown sugar and 1/3 cup of melted butter. Then add 3 tablespoons of your favorite bourbon, a tablespoon of vanilla extract, a tablespoon of flour, 6 ounces of chocolate chips and a cup of chopped walnuts.

    Mix it all together, pour it into a 9-inch pie shell (the frozen kind, not the precooked kind), and pop it in the preheated oven for an hour.

That's it. Let it cool a bit when it's done. Then, if you like, top it with some whipped cream (or, if you really want to gild the lily, some bourbon sauce), although it stands up fine on its own. Get ready for some major "oooooh!"-ing and "mmmmm!"-ing, plus everyone will be totally impressed that you actually baked a pie, even though all you really did was mix some stuff together in a bowl.

Mint Julep

AP Photo/Brian Bohannon

Go ahead, get crazy, have a couple mint juleps on Saturday.

For lots of people, the Kentucky Derby means one thing: Time to drink that annual mint julep. Here's how to make them:

    Boil 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of lightly bruised mint for at least an hour (or, ideally, refrigerate overnight). Make one julep at a time by filling a chilled cup with crushed ice, adding 1 to 1½ tablespoons of the sugar/mint mixture, and 2 to 3 ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and serve with a cloyingly affected Southern accent.

Purists will say you need to serve each julep in a silver cup, but that's optional -- there's nothing wrong with using a chilled glass. If anyone gives you a hard time about it, just make your phony Southern accent even deeper and say, "I say, suh, do you mean to impugn the integrity of mah julep?"

What's not optional is crushed ice -- lots of it. Wrap a bunch of ice cubes in a towel or piece of cloth and just smash the hell out of it with a hammer. C'mon, everyone likes smashing stuff with hammers.

Then there's the question of which bourbon to use. Let's be honest: Unless you're a connoisseur snob really annoying fancy-pants, most bourbons are gonna taste more or less the same to you, especially after you mix them into a julep. Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve -- these are all solid choices. My only advice: avoid Booker's or any other barrel-proof brand -- too strong for julep purposes.

Of course, if you're too busy or lazy to make juleps, the bourbon will also go down fine on its own, which should help ease the sting when your horse finishes out of the money.

Paul Lukas writes regularly about food (and you thought he only knew about uniforms). His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and his Page 2 archive is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.


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