By Carla Carlton
Here in Bourbon Country, we love to entertain. In fact, we love it so much that we’ve added another official holiday to the calendar: Derby Day. Even if you don’t get within 10 furlongs of a horse on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby is a great excuse to get together with friends, throw around words like “furlong” and, of course, drink Bourbon. No matter how far you are from the Old Kentucky Home, these hot tips will make your Derby party a winner.
Unless you’re planning an Infield Party (in which case, clothing = optional), you and your guests should break out your Derby finest. The Derby is an Occasion, people. It’s one of the few remaining social events at which women still wear hats, for instance. And what hats – the bigger and showier, the better.
If you’re not in Kentucky, where Derby hats start to bloom in boutiques about the same time daffodils blossom in the fields, try eBay, where you’ll find an entire section of reasonably priced options.
The ladies don’t have a lock on Derby fashion. The first Saturday in May is the unofficial start of Seeksucker Suit Season (see sidebar) for the gentlemen, ideally complemented by a crisp white shirt and a colorful tie (Vineyard Vines is the official tie maker of the Kentucky Derby). No seeksucker? No problem. A khaki suit with a vibrant shirt and tie will also make the grade. Remember: When it comes to Derby attire, more is more.
THE SEERSUCKER SUIT
The distinctive striped seersucker suit, a classic menswear choice on Derby Day that manages to look sharp despite its rumpled, puckered cotton texture, was first popularized in North America in the early 1900s as business casual clothing for working men in hot, humid New Orleans. The name comes from the Persian term shir o shakar, which means milk and sugar, reflecting the fact that the fabric is smooth on one side, like milk, and grainy on the other, like sugar. The texture is created by what is called a slack-tension weave, where groups of yarn are bunched together in certain portions of the fabric. That puckering creates space between the body and parts of the clothing, making the fabric cool to wear.
The website wisegeek.com notes that because the slack-tension weaving process is labor intensive and expensive, fewer companies today produce true seersucker, instead treating fabric with chemicals to
create a puckered effect. That effect doesn’t last, however, so while a true seersucker suit may cost more initially, it will wear much better in the long run.
Consider using brightly colored tablecloths and napkins to evoke jockeys’ silks. If you have a favorite horse leading up to the party, you could match the tableware to that stable’s colors. A vase of red roses makes a fitting centerpiece at a party celebrating the Run for the Roses; you can also place several julep cups (silver or nickel-plated) filled with roses (real or silk) strategically around the room.
Other nice touches: Order official Kentucky Derby programs and Racing Forms at www.lounews.com so your guests can apply some real horse sense to their picks, and print out the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” so they can follow along during the Post Parade.
Before we forget, this party is at least tangentially about a horse race, and what are horse races about?
The pageantry of the post parade? The strength and majesty of the thoroughbred? Nope. They are about losing money. Don’t let the fact that you are not at Churchill Downs keep you from losing some yourself.
Have each guest throw a few dollars into one basket and draw from another basket a folded slip of paper with the name of a Derby contender on it. (If there are more guests than horses, repeat the field as needed.) The winner takes all (divide the pot accordingly if you’ve doubled or tripled the slips of paper).
To give your faux wagering more authenticity, download the free Home Tote Board app from eponies.com before the party and enter the names of the actual Derby contenders. Display your tote board on your tablet in a central location. As you enter each guest’s wager by horse and amount (“win” bets are currently the only option), it will reflect the running house odds in real time and calculate the winner(s)’ payout.
Whether you love it or think it’s a criminal waste of good Bourbon, the mint julep is inextricably linked with the Kentucky Derby, and your guests will expect to sip one, particularly if they’re non-Kentuckians and don’t know better. Every year, about 120,000 mint juleps are served at the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, according to Early Times, the whiskey used at Churchill Downs for their juleps. That takes 60,000 pounds of ice, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep Cocktail.
You probably won’t need quite that much. In fact, Kathy Hensley, co-owner of The Silver Spoon catering company in Louisville and The Silver Spoon II, which operates the Derby CafeÅL at the Kentucky Derby
Museum, suggests serving mini-juleps. “What we found is that most people at events would take about two sips of their juleps and then sit them down.”