My Old Kentucky Home-Cooking

My Old Kentucky Home-Cooking
Derby Day at Churchill Downs

 My Old Kentucky Home- Cooking 

If you took the best of Southern cooking (see http://www.chicagonow.com/my-kind-of-old-town/2013/07/real-southern-cooking-so-good-youd-fight-your-daddy-for-it/) and put it on a table in an old Kentucky home , you would be looking at a Derby Day breakfast. Mind you, the meal isn’t served at what most of us consider breakfast time, but that doesn’t matter. If it’s served on Derby Day, it’s breakfast.  A typical spread might include: sliced smoked ham in beaten biscuits, Kentucky Burgoo, country fried chicken, green beans and jowl, chicken gumbo with rice, corn pudding, cooked and raw tomatoes, hot corn bread, Derby pie, and, of course, mint juleps. Interesting aside: the most famous of all Kentucky breakfasts is not the Derby Day breakfast. It's  a steak, a man, a dog, and one quart of bourbon whiskey—bottled in bond. Directions: the man throws the steak to the dog and drinks the whiskey. 

A Kentucky Derby spread

A Kentucky Derby spread

Derby Day at the Skeens

For many years, a group of us gathered at the home of Fritz Skeen and Helen Morse for a Derby Day celebration.  Fritz has Kentucky in his bones, and celebrating Derby Day was a sacred rite. The ritual was first held at his North Park Condo in Old Town, then moved to Willow where it stayed before heading to Connecticut, California, and back to Chicago. Wherever it went, the Derby loyalists followed.

The ladies arrived in Derby attire: huge hats and floral dresses. The men favored neon blazers and plaid trousers. We began the day by drinking a mint julep. Everyone had to get a little juiced to celebrate properly. Once we were sufficiently mellow, we placed our bets. The Derby bunch took their betting seriously. They had studied the stats on all the horses: their records, their breeders, and what kind of track each favored. At the early parties, we simply wrote down our favorites and the order we expected them to finish. Later, the betting was computerized. ( the crowd were mostly IBM execs and very tech savvy.)

Derby fashions

Derby fashions

An hour or so into the proceedings, it was time to eat; and the Skeens put on quite a spread. Helen sent to Kentucky for the ham and the burgoo. She used authentic Southern recipes for the other dishes. So authentic that one year, Phil and Mary Jane Grinstead and I decided to make beaten biscuits. In the old days, beaten biscuits were made by pounding the dough until it blistered—usually about 30 minutes. Determined to be authentic, we mixed flour, salt, baking powder, lard, and cream and took turns beating the hell out of it. There was flour from one end of the kitchen to the other—including all over us. But, in the end, we turned out a carload of the little suckers to be baked, sliced, and filled with thin pieces of country ham. We could have cut the time in half with a food processor—but that would have flown in the face of tradition. 

"Two hundred licks is what I give
 for home folks, never fewer, an' if I'm 'specting company in,
 I gives five hundred sure!"

 Howard Weeden

Smoked country ham

Smoked country ham

Beaten biscuits with country ham

Beaten biscuits with country ham

Kentucky Burgoo

Kentucky Burgoo

Derby Pie

Derby Pie

Mint Julep

Mint Julep

With our betting slips tucked away, we lit into the food, which was, as my mother would say, "larrupin’ good". Everyone went back for seconds, and even thirds. Derby Day was not about restraint. When it was time for the race, Fritz passed around song sheets containing the words to “My Old Kentucky Home”. We belted it out like it really was our home. I don’t know why  that song always made me weepy because my affiliation with Kentucky was limited to driving across the bridge from my home town of Cairo, Illinois to Paducah for periodic shopping sprees at the “Skirt and Shirt". There was nothing particularly lovely or nostalgic about those trips—although the natives still swear that Paducah “ is another name for paradise”.

Having drunk, eaten, and sung the Derby anthem, we lined up before the television sets as the three-year old thoroughbreds moved into their gates. And, they were off. Two minutes later, the race was over, and the winning horse was draped in a blanket of roses, Most of us tossed aside our useless betting slips (I never won) and headed back to the bar.

And they're off!

And they're off!

A run for the roses

A run for the roses

Envoi

There are no more Derby parties at the Skeens. Firtz and Helen moved to Florida, taking our grand tradition with them. Gone are the lavish feasts and dressing to the nines on the first Saturday in May. Nowadays, we watch the race in re-runs on the evening news.  But I do remember it--and sometimes, when the spirit hits me, I fry up a batch of chicken, make some biscuits (not beaten), and put together a Derby pie. I think about (but don't sing) the words to "My Old Kentucky Home". It's all still "larrupin good".

My Old Kentucky Home

My Old Kentucky Home

      So weep no more, my lady, oh weep no more today.
      We will sing one song for the Old Kentucky Home,
      For the Old Kentucky Home far away.

      

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