You don't need to be at Churchill Downs to have a rip-roaring Kentucky Derby party. Derby parties come in all shapes and sizes, from high society black-tie soirees to backyard barbeques.
In the Kentucky Kitchen
There are a few born-and-bred-in-Kentucky dishes that you'll see on every Derby party menu. The first is Henry Bain sauce. It was named after its inventor, the head waiter at Louisville's Pendennis Club. Bain made the sauce in 1881 as an accompaniment to wild game, and it's been a Louisville tradition ever since. A sweet, tangy, spicy concoction, this sauce is best served with beef tenderloin.
Another cornerstone of Louisville cuisine is the Hot Brown sandwich. Created by the chef of the Brown Hotel, this open-faced sandwich consists of two slices of toast topped with juicy roast turkey, tomato slices, crispy bacon, and a blanket of Cheddar-Parmesan cheese sauce. The sandwich is then broiled until the cheese sauce turns golden brown.
From Louisville's Benedict Hotel comes the Benedictine, a cucumber canapé spread.
Dessert on Derby day can only be one thing: a rich, dense chocolate-nut pie flavored with Kentucky bourbon. The original version of this pie is trademarked and fiercely protected by its inventors, but there are several unofficial versions of it: Run for the Roses Pie, Eighth Race Pie, Thoroughbred Pie, and Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie.
There is only one proper drink to have at a Kentucky Derby party, and that's a mint julep. A traditional mint julep is made with bourbon, muddled mint leaves and sugar, finely crushed ice, and a generous sprig of mint for garnish. Almost every state in the South claims to have invented it. The time-honored way to serve a julep is in a frosty silver goblet, but you can use whatever festive cups you like. An extra-nice touch is to trim straws so they just slightly stick out of the cup. When guests sip from the short straws, their noses will be close to the refreshing mint garnish.
While it's certainly not traditional, consider serving an alternate cocktail for the bourbon-averse: a tart, minty Mojito or a nonalcoholic Mint Tea Punch.
Don't Forget your Derby Hat
The Derby hat is as longstanding and important a tradition as the Kentucky Derby itself. Almost everyone at the race or any Derby party will be wearing a spectacular hat, whether costly and custom-designed or made at home with a glue gun and imagination. Ask your Derby day guests to come wearing Derby hats, and offer prizes for the most ornate, the most stylish, the most creative and the most bizarre.
Or turn hat-decorating into a party activity: ask everyone to bring plain hats and a selection of ribbons, flowers, lace, tulle, feathers, plastic horse figurines, and any other hat decorations they can dream up. There is no such thing as too big, too bold, too elaborate or too outlandish. Provide glue guns, wire, tape, staplers and scissors, and let the fun begin!