Pick a winner and sip on a mint julep, it's Derby Day

May 01, 2004|By ROB KASPER

THE LETTUCE is stubby, the rabbits have already wiped out the beans, but the mint is thriving and the ponies are prancing in Louisville. Hot damn, honeylamb - it's Derby Day!

Today is a day to forget, or ignore, the slings and arrows of life. Those would include the slow-moving drain, the new howl coming from the car engine, the battle that is gardening. Push such persistent sources of sorrow aside, pick a winner, pick some mint, make a julep.

Around here, the first of May is not merely the start of a new month, it's the beginning of a whole new attitude. April is dark and dutiful, and time when reservoirs fill. May, by contrast, is full of bright frolic. It's a time when, as Guenevere trilled it in Camelot, "the dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks."

If form holds, there will be plenty of damage to decorum today at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The youngsters in the infield will get nearly naked. Oldsters with binoculars will eye the young flesh then blubber as they sing "My Old Kentucky Home." The horses will take their two-minute whirl around the track, fortunes will shift and many will weep. It's a glorious outpouring of emotions and libations that will be repeated two weeks later in Baltimore at The Preakness Stakes on May 15.

I rarely miss the Derby. Even when I spent Saturdays roaming around Maryland as a coach of kids' baseball, I carried a transistor radio with me. One Derby Day I was in Sparks, standing in the third base coaching box and having trouble simultaneously coaching baseball and listening to the stretch run of the race on the portable radio. So I did what any sensible coach would, I held runners at third until the Derby was over.

Julep in hand, I will be among the weepers today, singing and sipping as I watch the Derby on television (post time 6:04 p.m. on Channel 11).

There are as many recipes for mint juleps running around as there are Kentuckians named "Jim-Bob." Here is the best:

Place 6 to 8 mint leaves in the bottom of a silver julep cup.

Massage them with a wooden muddler. (I use a miniature Louisville Slugger baseball bat.) Add 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of club soda to the bottom of the cup and let the trio of ingredients mingle as you pulverize some ice cubes.

The ideal ice cube pulverizing container is a clean canvas bank bag. I got one from Mercantile, a Baltimore institution known for its clean money. A towel will also do. Once the cubes are covered by the bag or towel, you beat the bejeezus out of them with a baby sledge hammer. Do this outdoors, if you can, as inside, the pounding tends to shake the glassware and disturb the spouse.

Cram the pulverized ice into the julep cup, pour in the lifeblood of Kentucky bourbon. Top the elixir off with a sawed-off straw and a sprig of mint.

The powers of this julep are legendary. It has been known to make lawyers generous, to give Yankees a Southern drawl and to give folks who don't know Secretariat from an a-rab's pony a feeling of certainty that they can predict the Derby winner.

Like too much sunshine, too much of this mint julep can lead to pain and embarrassment.

Years ago when we lived in Bethesda and threw a big Kentucky Derby party, I watched my friend Howard, a man who is now known as a "distinguished Washington corespondent" for a major news magazine, toss down a couple of juleps then walk out on our front porch and take off his clothes. We moved to Baltimore shortly after that party.

All good juleps require fresh mint. The best is thy neighbor's mint. Somehow the coveted, pilfered stuff tastes better, more forbidden.

The truth is, most folks with mint growing in their yards are more than happy to have somebody take it away. Mint is a lot like a weed or a visiting relative: Once it puts down roots, it won't leave.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I surveyed my vegetable garden. Spring is a season of rising expectations, a time of graduations, proms and outdoor revels. But along with the bright blooms and fresh hopes come the usual disappointments. One would be the state of the garden, a plot of ground that has taken so much of my time and holds such promise, yet now yields mostly dandelions and mint.

Rather than getting discouraged, the secret, I think, is to stop and smell the mint leaves.

Then make a julep with them.

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