By Tisa Conway-Cunningham

There is nothing like being trackside at Churchill Downs in Louisville for what has been coined the “greatest two minutes in sports,” the running of the Kentucky Derby.

The gates swish open, the bell sounds and the roaring of hooves begin their thunderous accent for 1.25 miles around the track. Standing on the trackside, close to the railing, creates an immersive experience for onlookers. You can feel it in your chest. The boom of racing hooves on the track, the roar of patrons cheering on their favorite jockey/horse duo, as they run for the roses to claim their place in history.

There is a moment when time stands still. When the horses reach your visual cortex, in that moment everything ceases to exist.

Spectators watch the crowds as they enter the Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in 2013. (Photo by Tisa Conway-Cunningham)

Thump, Thump, Th… they race past you, a fury of precision, the swish of air blows past you, as your brain captures a mental picture of this special memory. No words do it justice to describe that moment of euphoria. It is something that everyone should experience firsthand, at least once.

This year, the Kentucky Derby celebrates its 150th anniversary as the oldest continuous sporting event in United States history. Since its inception in 1875, by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, the nephew of famous explorer, William Clark, the Kentucky Derby is one of the most popular attended spectator sports annually.

Such as the race, the traditions surrounding the Kentucky Derby, have become a staple for experiences that one should partake in if in attendance. Yes, the race is the most important attraction every first Saturday in May, but one cannot resist the indulgence of the food and libations that surround the event. From mint juleps to hot browns, there is a whole other scene that tourists navigate to Kentucky for. There is an ever-increasing food and drink culture that parallels the Kentucky Derby.

Traditionally, the Kentucky Derby offered up historical southern fare, but over time, introduced signature local dishes that have made their indelible imprint on Kentucky fare.

Kentucky burgoo, a hearty stew-like Brunswick stew, okra stew or Louisiana gumbo, this inland version, includes a variety of game meats land and air, and an eclectic combination of vegetation, seasoned with local spices. Pork, beef, chicken, rabbit, mutton, venison, carrots, potatoes, okra, stewed tomatoes, green beans, corn, onions, bell peppers, lima beans, Worcestershire sauce, barbecue sauce, or A1 sauce, and even hot sauce, burgoo contains any combination of at least three meats and an abundance of hearty vegetables in a savory tomato based stew accompanied by cornbread or corn muffins.

Krystal Conway-Cunningham, middle, and Tisa Conway-Cunningham, right, volunteered making mint juleps to raise money for their fraternity during the Kentucky Derby in 2013. (Photo submitted)

Commonly, prepared in large quantities, there is not one recipe that is coined to be the original. In the 1800s, burgoo was a quintessential dish served during social gatherings, fundraisers and events for the masses, and became a popular racecourse dish to sell and feed the large groups attracted to the Kentucky Derby. Burgoo is not the fanciest dish but delivers its own piece of nostalgia in line with Kentucky Derby history. It is a dish made from what is regionally available, liberally spiced, finished with a spicy kick, slowly cooked for 14 to 20 hours melding flavor maturity.

The mint julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. (Photo via Flickr)

Today, this dish can be found all over Kentucky in several variations, but Keeneland Racecourse, which holds the qualifying rounds for the Derby, acts as one of the most famous spots to enjoy Kentucky burgoo. Since the 1930s, Keeneland’s burgoo recipe remains the same, and has become a vivid memory for those attending the racetrack. Locally, Kentucky burgoo can be enjoyed at Sig Luscher Brewery, the Firehouse Sandwich Shop on the grounds of Buffalo Trace Distillery, Staxx Barbecue and The Stave in Millville. Always check location menus, as seasonal menus may include rotating options.

The Kentucky hot brown, an open-faced hot sandwich created by Fred K. Schmidt at Louisville’s Brown Hotel in 1926, is a must-experience dish when visiting Kentucky. Think, juicy sliced turkey, atop soft, slices of white bread, crispy bacon, sliced tomatoes, topped with a mornay (cheese sauce) sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, all oven broiled to a toasty, cheesy and bubbly masterpiece. Mmm … this dish offers a gooey, cheesy, perfectly salted, flavor bomb to adorn your tastebuds. While variations can include ham, mushrooms, pimento cheese, beer cheese or some other cheesy concoction, nothing is as good as the original at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, which you will want to make reservations for to partake in this experience.

The former downtown restaurant Gibby’s served a Kentucky hot brown. Try a hot brown at Serafini’s or The Brown Barrel in downtown Frankfort. (Photo submitted)

Nearly every city has its own variations of the famous dish, from appetizers, to sandwiches, soups, you name it, the hot brown is a local staple synonymous to the region. Frankfort’s hot brown variations include hot brown eggrolls at Bourbon on Main, a hot brown burger and a hot brown sandwich at Serafini’s and a hot brown sandwich at Frankfort’s newest downtown restaurant, The Brown Barrel. No matter what city you are in, ask around, and I am sure the locals will lead you to your own hot brown experience.

One of the most versatile dishes embedded into Kentucky Derby history is beer cheese. Since the 1930s, this salty, spicy, sharp cheddar cheese spread has been served up in many forms. It can be served appetizer style as a dip along with chips, pretzels or vegetables. Lunch and dinner menus may include it as a spread on a sandwich, kicked up grilled cheese, on burgers, hotdogs, nachos or atop a crispy golden loaded fry dish. Whether served hot or cold, beer cheese is a tasty snack that pairs well with any beer and libations that accompany Kentucky Derby celebrations.

When in bourbon country, do as the locals would do — drink bourbon. The namesake drink of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep. Bourbon, mint, sugar and crushed ice are key ingredients to make the infamous drink. In 1939, Churchill Downs sold the first collector julep cups along with its juleps, and officially coined the mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.

Today, this tradition continues, with over 120,000 mint juleps being sold alongside the two days of horse racing. That is over 60,000 pounds of crushed ice, over 10,000 ready-to-serve Old Forester bottled mint juleps, and over 1,000 pounds of fresh mint. So, when at the Kentucky Derby, drink a mint julep.

Just as popular, the official drink of the Kentucky Oaks is the Finlandia Oaks Lily. With a vodka base, sweet and sour mix, triple sec and cranberry juice, this fruitier beverage is served up in a stemless collector Kentucky Oaks Lily wine glass garnished with blackberries and a lemon wedge. If you prefer a fruity mixed drink, then try the Lily, you will not be disappointed.

Bourbon balls, Modjeskas, Derby pie, bourbon bread pudding and caramel butter cake all offer a sweet finish to the whole Derby experience. The official pie of the Kentucky Derby, is the Kern’s Derby-Pie, a chocolate nut pie made from premium chocolate and choice walnuts folded into a filling similar to pecan pie. These pies are sold all over the bluegrass state, come fully cooked and are best served oven warmed.

Homemade chocolate chip bread pudding topped with a bourbon caramel sauce is available at Bourbon on Main in downtown Frankfort. (Photo courtesy the Bourbon on Main Facebook page)

If you find bread pudding on a menu in Kentucky, it will more than likely include a bourbon sauce. Warm, pillowy, cinnamon, vanilla, sugary, baked bread, drenched in a sweet, buttery, bourbon sauce. Bread pudding elsewhere may be good, but bourbon bread pudding is on a whole other level of sweet indulgence. To partake locally, visit Bourbon on Main, Sage Garden Café or The Stave to satisfy your Kentucky bread pudding craving.

Truthfully, this article could go on and on, as I have just scratched the surface of the food scene that surrounds the Kentucky Derby. Think southern fare. Think fried chicken, country ham biscuits, fried green tomatoes, stone ground grits, deviled eggs, tea sandwiches, benedictine spread, pimento cheese, tomato pie and so much more. Whatever you do this year at the Kentucky Derby, remember to eat and drink responsibly.