This is The Digest, a new FiveThirtyEight column exploring the science, history and economics of food. We’re still working out the essential ingredients to make this just right — we welcome your feedback and suggestions! You can email me, leave a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter. Now, on to this week’s cocktail.
Even when a sporting event is synonymous with food, it doesn’t have the same kind of specific culinary traditions as the Kentucky Derby does. Sure, lots of people eat wings at the Super Bowl, but there’s no sense of loss if the day passes with nachos, ribs and seven-layer dip instead. But you’d be hard pressed to find a Kentucky Derby party that doesn’t serve mint juleps, chocolate-bourbon pecan pie and, within Kentucky at least, burgoo.
While these foods are clearly connected with the Kentucky Derby today, their origin stories are murky. Like with so much of culinary Americana, lots of parties claim that they were the ones who created the storied traditions.
Take the mint julep. The Greenbrier in West Virginia (which was home to Congress’s secret bunker during the Cold War) has hinted that it believes the drink may have originated there, though culinary historian Pat Reber dug up earlier references from a Virginia plantation. However, as Reber notes, while the cocktail form of a julep was described as a “peculiarly an American beverage” in the classic 1862 “How To Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” the English chronicler Captain Frederick Marryat, who the book credits with introducing it to England, actually made a compelling case that it must have been a creation of his homeland. In his 1839 published diary, he noted a reference to “cordial julep” in a Milton poem. He also noted that “they are, in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.”
Then there’s burgoo, a thick, meaty stew that inspired the name of a nearly successful bid for the 1932 Triple Crown. According to a New York Times article, reprinted from the Louisville Courier-Journal in November 1897, the stew had Welsh origins, but became the thick, meaty, Kentucky creation that it is today by a French chef who cooked for the Confederacy. It’s meant to be served in a silver cup, much like the mint julep, which makes it the perfect food to eat once the liquids have all dried up.
Today, burgoo is one of those wonderful dishes that has an amorphous list of ingredients and flavors, and yet you know it when you see it. Take, for example, the recipes listed on burgoo.org (a site dedicated to Arenzville, Illinois, “Home of the World’s Best Burgoo”). Cabbage, Worcestershire, creamed corn and paprika are all central to some recipes and absent from others. My neighbor John, a native of Louisville who cooks for a living, says all it needs is “smoked meat and succotash cooked to oblivion.” The one characteristic that everyone seems to agree on is that it be thick, so thick you can stand a spoon in it, as the saying goes. That thickness often comes from making the soup a menagerie of critter meats. Squirrel, opossum, wild turkey … they’ve all graced the pots of a good burgoo.
Food gone wild
Mint, one of the most delightful and odiferous herbs, isn’t just for juleps and chocolate chip ice cream, it’s also involved in dishes as varied as Afghan Aush, a chili-like dish served over noodles, Indian chutney and Frijoles a la Huacha, from the Yucatán.1 Mint also has a pretty stellar pedigree — it’s a member of the Lamiaceae family, along with rosemary, basil, sage and oregano, and among many other edible herbs. But heaven help the poor soul who plants it in her yard without putting a moat around it. Because delightful as mint may be, it is most definitely a weed.
What qualifies as a weed is subjective — Merriam-Webster says it is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially: one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.” Legally, according to the Bureau of Land Management, a noxious weed is: “any plant designated by a Federal, State or county government as injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife or property.”
The BLM hasn’t called out mint, any of its many varietals, as a weed in any state as far as I could find. But anyone who’s ever grown mint outside of an enclosed pot tightly controlled area can tell you that, no matter how much she loves mint going into the planting, by the time a year has passed it will definitely not be valued in the many places it will be growing unless it is contained. It is definitely injurious to property and agriculture, unless you are the rare person who wants to have a lawn made of mint.
There are many reasons mint runs rampant: Most herbs require full sunlight, but mint can often survive partial shade, with minimal amounts of sun. At a minimum, it grows in “plant hardiness” zones 4 to 9 (so most of the United States), and though it requires moist soil, the amount of water it needs varies depending on how much sun it gets. Like strawberries and other plants, mint has stolons, or runners — stems that grow just above or below the soil, and sprout plants from buds that grow along them. I couldn’t find estimates of the growth rate of mint, but it is often described as “vigorous” or “very vigorous.”
So it’s no surprise that mint can be found in several places on Falling Fruit, a map of urban foraging and harvesting possibilities. Should you have found yourself in need of mint in Louisville this week, a city that was undoubtedly plundered of the odiferous herb for the making of the 120,000 mint juleps reportedly served at the Derby this weekend, a few miles to the northeast of Churchill Downs, Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church reportedly has a public garden with plums, blackberries, raspberries and, you guessed it, mint.
Pappy Van Winkle is by many accounts the best bourbon on the planet, but the love for Pappy has made the world go mad. First there was the great Pappy heist. Then there was the Pappy forgery scheme. Then the Pappy petty theft, and later the recovered Pappy. Let us not even bring up the empty Pappy bottle currently for sale on ebay for $249.99.
Pappy may be the best (this author has never had the pleasure), but it is just one of many fine bourbons coming out of Kentucky. GQ published a chart showing how a few distilleries and companies own most of the good bourbon coming out of Kentucky (it’s worth studying if you like bourbon). It’s taken from the book The Kings County Distillery Guide To Urban Moonshining. It shows how various labels are distilled and/or owned by the same companies. As pointed out in GQ, you can avoid the Pappy fray but still enjoy delicious bourbon by turning to W.L. Weller. The-12 year retails in the $20 to $30 range, just a tad less than the $3000 that Pappy is currently going for resale. Or just grab one here.