The Kentucky Derby is a touchstone of home for Carrie Williamson, a writer and marketing consultant who grew up in Louisville and now lives in New Orleans.
“We’re big on tradition,” Williamson said of her fellow Kentuckians. “For us, missing the Derby is like being away from home at Christmas time. You have to celebrate it somehow; it’s part of who you are.”
She started hosting her own Derby Day parties while away from home for college, introducing her school friends in the Northeast to Derby traditions from bourbon to grits.
She’s continued the custom wherever she’s lived. Since she moved to New Orleans in 2007 the Derby Party has been transplanted to her Faubourg St. John home; that is, when she’s not traveling back to Kentucky to attend the Derby itself.
While bars and restaurants around New Orleans are upping the ante for their own Kentucky Derby watch parties and pre-parties (see our related article), the home viewing party is another social and festive way to celebrate the day. The Kentucky Derby itself offers an extensive guide to hosting a viewing party (click here).
But we asked Williamson to customize some advice for New Orleanians looking to host or join a party. Below, she breaks down the essentials from her time-honed traditions, and shares some New Orleans-specific tips she’s learned since hosting Derby Day in the Big Easy.
Bourbon, bourbon and more bourbon
“The No. 1 thing is free-flowing mint juleps,” Williamson said. “You just can’t have a Derby party without them.”
For a classic mint julep recipe click here.
For Williamson’s own pro tip, start your prep the day before and steep a handful of mint in the simple syrup for 24 hours. Remove and discard the steeped mint and, when you mix drinks, add fresh mint. Thus steeped and garnished, the cocktail should be redolent with mint.
Another essential: crushed ice. Cubes just won’t cut it for this special drink, she noted.
Early and often
It’s a good thing those drinks are refreshing, because to properly do it up for this party, you should get an early start.
“The thought of drinking bourbon in the morning doesn’t always compute for people, but this party starts early and it goes straight through race time,” said Williamson. “Even in New Orleans, you sometimes have to convince people that it’s OK to start early.”
Feeding and grazing
Of course, this sort of day plan means you’ll want to have food at the ready for people to soak up the booze. One classic Derby Day dish is Kentucky burgoo, a hearty country soup as revered in Kentucky kitchens as gumbo is in Louisiana.
Williamson’s own recipe comes from the vintage but hard-to-find Farmington Plantation cookbook. Other recipes abound online, and Williamson offers this perspective on tailoring your own.
“The meats were traditionally wild game, venison, rabbit, wild turkey, etc. and whatever garden fresh vegetables one had on hand,” she said. “So people can feel free to substitute whatever meats they want to use, knowing that there should be at least three with one being a poultry. As for the vegetables, folks sometimes omit the cabbage or add potatoes, but corn and lima beans and okra are staples.”
Snacks and style points
Don’t worry about a coursed meal, a buffet of snacks with a stew ready on the stove works better. What’s on the table? Try these staples:
- A cheese spread is an essential snack, and Williamson is partial to “thunder cheese,” a pecan-cheddar spread from the deli at the mini local grocery chain Canseco’s Markets.
“There’s jalapeno in there, which gives it a little more of a Louisiana kick,” she said.
- Spiced pecans, another Kentucky/Louisiana commonality.
- Fried chicken, of the take-out variety for a cold platter to munch on through the day.
For style points, put a dozen red roses in a vase on the table and encourage hats.
“The more extravagant the better with the hats,” she said.
And of course, add a betting pot, with all the horses’ names written on stubs of paper and pulled at random by each guest before the race. The host decides how much money goes in the pot and everyone has a stake in the outcome.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.