Guests at my parents' annual Kentucky Derby party began to trickle in around 11 a.m. Women in bright greens, yellows and pinks, wearing hats the size of refrigerator boxes. Men, plaid to be alive, sporting needlepoint belts, khakis, no socks and tassel loafers. Combined, they looked like characters from a children's show floating up the hill toward our front door.
This was Louisville of the 1970s. But it's not much different now. Lots of Louisvillians choose to play with each other on Derby Day rather than heading to the track. House parties, with enormous breakfast buffets at their center, happen all over the city.
Smells produce memories as much as images do. When it comes to the Derby buffets of my childhood, the smells nearly overpower the visual: the buttery, salty smell of morning biscuits in the oven. A huge urn of percolating black coffee spewing steam in the kitchen. The fragrance of magnolia blossoms, cut by my mother at dawn from our backyard tree, and placed in gleaming glass vases throughout the house.
Roses were laid on the white tablecloth of the dining room table whose chairs were gone - scattered downstairs and even out in the yard. Platters emerged from the kitchen: plates of new asparagus tips, casserole dishes bubbling with corn pudding, Hadley Pottery bowls of strawberries and powdered sugar. Pyramids of buttermilk biscuits stacked beside the star of the show: a salt-cured, three-month-aged country ham. Hand sliced.
While my mother beat a path between the kitchen and the buffet table, my dad settled into party chores reserved for the man of those times. Things like pushing back furniture in the living room to make room for a dance floor. Late morning, just before the first arrivals, he stacked a half-dozen platters into the belly of the stereo console, cigarette in mouth, squinting down at his work through the blue velvet smoke. Once the turntable was loaded he stood back while the disk dropped and the needle seared the vinyl with a loud pop.
The speaker cabinets filled the house with Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles and, best of all, Herb Alpert's hit record Whipped Cream, the cover of which featured a highly stylized studio photo of a sexy woman in a whipped cream gown. She occupied every waking moment of my 13th year on Earth.
My mom never referred to the attendees at the Derby party as "guests." It was always "company," and the company was always the same people. Among them, my dad's best work buddy, the hulking, glassy-eyed Mr. Sodeberg, who came in from Okolona, Ky. His wife, Addy, spoke with the curious accent of her Duluth hometown. Her speech led me to believe Duluth was a city in Europe.
By early afternoon a second raft of smells overtook the affair. Lady perfume, affordable, pungent stuff of the day like Revlon's "Charlie," permeated the bathroom and trailed behind its former occupants. The sharp scent of Old Spice and English Leather cut, but just barely, through the gathering clouds of cigar smoke.
The dense fragrance of crushed mint and brown sugar collided over cracked ice in julep glasses. A large splash of Yellowstone bourbon set the wild smells free like prisoners on a jailhouse break.
The TV set blared all day long out on the screened-in porch. The Derby may have been the first sports event to have hours of lead-up time programmed in. At least that's the way the Louisville affiliates did it. Coverage included shots of celebs partying it up on the air-conditioned "Millionaire's Row" at Churchill Downs.
For some reason the Derby has always attracted Hollywood's second tier. In the '70s people like the actor who played Isaac the Bartender on The Love Boat enjoyed multiple cutaways. These days, chumpy celebrities like Bo Derek and Kid Rock are Derby regulars. The modern-day poster child of Derby Day fame is Larry Birkhead, the Kato Kaelin of the new millennium. Birkhead's the guy who took Anna Nicole Smith's hand, stepped over the rope line where he was photographing her at a Derby bash, and sired a media wet dream.
Things at Bob and Mary Kay Moore's Derby party usually started to unravel, in a bourbon kind of way, by post time. Mr. Sodeberg was barefoot by now. One year, stogie in mouth, wobbling around as though there was an earthquake, he fired my father's shotgun off into the air of our suburban backyard during the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
Maybe images do outlive smells because that scene is forever etched into my brain. And on May 1, at about 4:15 p.m. Central time, as the ABC cameras pan the University of Louisville Band playing the official song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I'll raise my glass to the memories of Derby Days on Valley Vista Road and to Mr. Sodeberg, who will be whipping the shanks of Pegasus around the third turn at heaven's track.