Kentucky Derby culinary traditions

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August 24th, 2020

The Kentucky Derby is deeply woven into the fabric of Americana. This iconic event goes beyond horse racing and touches many facets of culture and leisure, and this series examines some of these ties.

In this edition, we look at culinary traditions tied to Kentucky horse racing. Elevate your Derby party by adding one of these customary dishes to your menu.

The Hot Brown

The grand Brown Hotel, in the heart of Louisville, has welcomed guests with genteel southern charm since 1923. In the decade after opening, more than 1,200 people flocked to the elegant ballrooms each evening for opulent dinner dances that went into the early hours of the morning, when revelers would often retire to the restaurant for a fourth meal.

In 1926, chef Fred Schmidt wanted to offer merrymakers a fresh alternative to ham and eggs, and he created the Hot Brown, which quickly earned the critical acclaim it continues to enjoy today. The open-faced turkey sandwich is accented with bacon, tomatoes, and a Mornay sauce. Demand for the dish traveled beyond the walls of the Georgian-revival hotel, and now the Hot Brown is a staple in Louisville and beyond.

It has been featured in Southern Living, the Los Angeles Times, NBC's Today Show, ABC News with Diane Sawyer, the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, the Wall Street Journal, and many of the world’s finest cookbooks.

You can cccess the Brown Hotel’s recipe here.

Kentucky burgoo

Kentucky burgoo — a meat and vegetable stew — has a long history with horse racing, but its exact origins are unknown. In early versions, the communal dish was cooked in large kettles and often improvised, with a hodgepodge of what people could gather — vegetables from the current harvest and meat like pigeon, squirrel, wild game, mutton, and chicken.

One theory claims French chef Gustave Jaubert concocted the first burgoo for confederate soldiers. After the Civil War, Jaubert worked at Buffalo Trace Distillery, cooking for employees, and burgoo was in his rotation of regular meals. Burgoo’s popularity spread throughout the region, and traveling cooks prepared it at events, including livestock auctions and horse sales.

Another famous burgoo master was a Lexington grocer named James T. Looney. Once a year, he made a large batch for a one-day race meet, held as a fundraiser to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to Kentucky orphanages, on Colonel E.R. Bradley’s farm. Bradley named a horse Burgoo King in Looney’s honor, and it won the 1932 Kentucky Derby.

Burgoo remains a popular staple for fundraisers and political events in Kentucky. The stew is on Churchill Downs menus and is an institution at Keeneland. Make this version recommended by Kentucky Derby.


The first Derby-Pie, a decadent dessert that consists of chocolate and walnuts, was made in 1954 at the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Kentucky, by managers Leaudra and Walter Kern and their son, George. As the treat grew in popularity, the Kerns decided to leave the management position at the Inn but continued selling the restaurant pies, baking them in their home kitchen, and slowly expanded their business to other entities. The Kerns trademarked the name and have closely protected the name. Eventually, the business outgrew their home, and they expanded.

Today, Kern’s Kitchen still guards the secret recipe, and the operation is run by Leaudra and Walter’s grandson, Alan Rupp, and great-grandson, Jon Rupp. They helped Louisville celebrate the re-opening of the Kentucky Derby Museum with a pie twelve feet in diameter and have participated in numerous Kentucky Derby Festivals.

Derby-Pie is available at select grocery stores, Kentucky restaurants, and online.

Read more on Derby Americana below:

Kentucky Derby Americana: Decadent and Depraved