Horses, hats, and mint juleps: a southern tradition

Saturday marked the 137th Kentucky Derby–the annual  “run for the roses” at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Lately I’ve been reading up on the history of the Derby and of horse racing in general, as a race plays an important role in my upcoming  Hickory Ridge novel, Beauty For Ashes. I’ve watched the Derby a few times, mostly to enjoy looking at the outrageous hats. Whether high end or homemade, the rule seems to be the bigger the better.

It turns out that horse racing in Louisville goes all the way back to 1783 when races were held on Market Street downtown. Later, they were moved to an island in the Ohio River, and in 1875, the first Derby was run at the track that was later named Churchill Downs. The winner that year was a horse called Aristides.

Aside from modeling gorgeous hats and serving mint juleps, women have played a role in the races since 1904 when Mrs. Laska Durnell entered her horse “Elwood” and won. In 1942, women owned seven of the top eight  finishers.  Twelve women trainers and five female jockeys have also left their marks on this historic race, the first of racing’s Triple Crown.

The Derby wouldn’t be the Derby without mint juleps, and it seems there’s as much disagreement about the proper way to make and serve one as there is about how to make salsa here in Texas.  The one thing most people agree on is that however a julep is made, it must be served in a silver cup. The julep didn’t start out as the official refreshment of the Derby; originally it was concocted to cover up the bitter taste of medicine, as was our beloved Georgia-based Southern libation, Coca-Cola (that’s “co-cola” to us Southerners). Anyway, here is the official Kentucky Derby mint julep recipe for those of you who are so inclined. Enjoy it this summer while sitting on the porch swing,  reading a good book. Or make yourself a gallon of sweet tea. Or pick up a six pack of Co-Cola.

Mint Julep

A day ahead (I know,  I hate recipes that start out like this, too, but this isn’t  too bad, I promise)  Boil 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water for five minutes to make a simple syrup. Add 8 sprigs of fresh mint, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. When it’s julep time, fill a silver julep cup with crushed ice. Add one tablespoon of the simple syrup and 2 ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly to frost the outside of the silver cup and garnish with more fresh mint.

Summer’s almost here. What is your favorite hot weather thirst quencher?