MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Louisville, Kentucky is gearing up for its most famous annual event - The Kentucky Derby. And this year, Britain's Queen Elizabeth will be attending the race. The Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May and it's preceded by more than a week of celebrations. There's a hot air balloon race, a steamboat race and Thunder Over Louisville, a huge fireworks display. And it always makes our commentator, Laura Lorson, homesick.
LAURA LORSON: If all you know about The Kentucky Derby is Hunter S. Thompson's essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," well, you've been misinformed. The Kentucky Derby is neither. It's not a church picnic but neither is it like a scene out of "Caligula." It's sweet. Sure, there is alcohol in abundance and a whole lot of people confused about just when to say when, but in the main, it is sweet.
Hand in hand with a state leader pass, the women wear hats and sometimes gloves. The men carry walking sticks. It's the height of bluegrass decorum. Unless you're watching the race from the infield in which case it is, you know, not, I associate that particular aspect of Derby day with Lynard Skynard, cheap beer and getting the sunburn of your life while wearing a pink-glitter spandex tube top, or so I'm told, not that I would personally know.
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
LORSON: The Derby can sneak up on you but if you're a native Louisvillian, as I am, you will find that along about the first week of every April, you are seized by the overwhelming desire to purchase a hat. And, eventually, you figure it out, it makes the instinct and drive for millinery seemed less like lunacy and more like a little alarm clock from your subconscious - the Derby is coming. Time to lay in a supply of good bourbon and make some Benedictine sandwiches.
Now, last Christmas, my parents went and got me commissioned as a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels - it's an honorary thing. I don't have to subsist on a diet of fried chicken or wear a white suit and one of those string ties, Mr. Wise Guy. In concrete terms, what it really means is that I got an invitation to the Colonel's annual reunion and barbeque the day after the Derby. But I know that what I'll end doing is sitting at home, watching the Derby on television.
Out here in Kansas, I will unquestionably be invited to, at least, three Derby parties to which I will be asked to bring a Derby pie. Now this is a trademark concoction, which is essentially a pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate in it. It's just stupid good, and I make a fine one myself and that's why I get invited to so many Derby parties, but I never go.
Here's why - because as I have aged, I have become sickly sentimental. I get choked up over sad commercials, particularly, the one with those shelter dogs who know how to sit, know how to fetch and just want to go home. And, anyway, what will unfailingly wreck me and the reason I can't go to Derby parties is the moment when everyone stands up and sings "My Old Kentucky Home."
Don't get me wrong, I have no nostalgia for the timeframe being referenced by this song, it's when I get to the part where I'm specifically instructed not to cry. You know?
(Singing) Weep no more, my lady.
That's it. I'm done. I start crying and I can't stop. I'm crying for all my relatives in Kentucky - the ones who have died, the ones who are someday going to die and I just want to go home. I'm crying like my heart will break because it's so beautiful and it's so Kentucky, and I'm not there.
And frankly, what I'm home sick for is not all the women in hats or men with watery-mint juleps are being shown in the stands. To me, that's not the Derby.
The Derby means standing around getting sugar bit out in your uncle's yard eating a cold hamburger, watching the race on a black and white portable set being absurdly proud of the Commonwealth. It means you and your cousins drawing the horses' names out of a hat and cheering for the one you pick as though you had $10,000 to win riding on it.
It's having a clear-eyed vision of the past or keeping a good sense of how tradition informs the future into knowing nothing at all about horseracing and yet knowing that Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby and that Barbaro won the last one. It's about understanding the deep logic of being a Kentuckian. It's about knowing where you're from.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: Laura Lorson lives in Perry, Kansas. And she reminds anyone planning a Derby party on May 5th, you've got to muddle the mint, not crush it.