Although she has never actually been to the Kentucky Derby, Mary Ensor has watched the horse race for years on television.
“I’ve been a horse person for years,” the Oswego resident says. “I rode from childhood.”
Most recently Ensor owned a Palomino quarter horse named Peaches, which she boarded at a Maple Park stable. Every year, she would gather with her fellow horse owners and watch the Kentucky Derby together. They would enjoy Southern food and drink together while enjoying this race known as “the run for the roses.”
Ensor tragically lost Peaches during a stable fire in 2005, but she never lost her interest in the Kentucky Derby. As division director of resources for Hesed House, Ensor, 63, was sure of one of the first events she wanted to plan as part of her fundraising responsibilities.
“I couldn’t believe that no one was doing a Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser; so about three years ago, I decided to do one,” Ensor says.
Her goal was to create an atmosphere that reflected the Southern hospitality and style of this 140-year-old tradition.
Ensor, who worked at Moser Enterprises in Naperville for 15 years and at North Central College for 10 years, reached out to her circle of friends with the idea and received enthusiastic support.
The third annual event May 3 at the Chicago Marriott Naperville Hotel features everything from white-gloved waiters serving mint juleps to a live bugle call to the post. Participants in the gala are encouraged to wear stylish hats while they feast on hearty hors d’oeuvres.
She is thrilled that gala participants have embraced the idea of wearing ornate hats to the event.
“Both men and women wear the hats,” she says. “When you look around the room at the hats, it is like a field of colorful wildflowers.”
Drinks are served in glass stemware and linens on every table.
“I try to create that Southern hospitality where you share the best you have with genuine warmth and generosity,” Ensor says.
Grace and style are a big factor.
“It is all about presentation. Each serving should look appetizing with sauces and garnishes,” she explains. “This is not a picnic. There needs to be cloth napkins and china plates.”
Ensor says there are a variety of flavors in Southern cuisine. One of her personal favorites is fried green tomatoes, which she makes by dipping thick green tomato slices in an egg-and-milk mixture. The slices are then coated in flour and cornmeal and gently fried in bacon grease until lightly browned.
“You always need to cook extras because they get eaten right out of the pan,” she says. “When there are no green tomatoes available, eggplant slices can be used.”
Another easy Southern-style treat are hot crab meat canapés. Ensor uses either canned or frozen crab meat for this simple appetizer, which she prefers to serve on party rye rounds. For a more elegant and substantial dish, Ensor serves seafood crepes. She serves two crepes for a light brunch entree or one crepe as an appetizer.
Southern-style beverage options are plentiful. Mint Juleps have been the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby for decades, Ensor says. More than 100,000 servings of this mix of mint-flavored simple syrup and bourbon are served during the two-day Kentucky Derby weekend each year. A bourbon-spiked punch is also a derby favorite.
“We also sing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ together,” she says. “It is such a wonderful day.”
And you’re in luck. There are still tickets available for the Kentucky Derby Gala to benefit Hesed House, Ensor says.
District 204 superintendent Kathy Birkett also will be honored with an individual humanitarian award, and Caterpillar will be presented with a Corporate Humanitarian Award at the event. The day filled with ice sculptures, a life-sized horse statue, beer sampling, raffles, auctions, live jazz and more is worth the admission, Ensor says.
“It all goes towards helping people out of homelessness.”
Hot Crab Canapés
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
¼ cup Dijon mustard
1-ounce package of Italian dressing seasoning mix
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6-ounce can crab meat, drained
Bread squares (rye, white, wheat)
Mix together cheese, mayonnaise, cream cheese, mustard, dressing mix and lemon juice. Gently fold in crab meat. Spread onto small bread squares. Place on a baking sheet. Brown in preheated broiler. Serve immediately.
Makes about 36 canapés.
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon dried sweet basil
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped green onion
1 tablespoon flour
1-¼ cups heavy cream
½ pound lump crab meat
1 pound peeled crawfish tails
¾ pound peeled medium shrimp
12 prepared crepes
Combine salt, white pepper, cayenne pepper, basil, thyme and oregano and set aside.
Melt butter in two-quart saucepan over high heat. Add onion and sauté until tender. Add seasoning mix. Cook one minute, stirring occasionally. Add green onions and flour, stirring until flour is completely mixed with butter. Stir in the cream and bring to a boil while stirring. Add crab meat and return to a boil, stirring gently so crab meat lumps do not break up. Reduce heat. Simmer and stir mixture until thickened, about a minute.
Turn heat back to high and add craw fish and shrimp. Cook and stir 2 to 4 minutes or until shrimp are pink. Remove from heat. Lay crepe flat and fill with about 1/3 cup of the mixture. Fold into thirds. Continue to fill all crepes. Spoon a small amount of any remaining filling over crepes to serve.
If you go
What: Third annual Kentucky Derby Gala
Who: Hesed House fundraiser to raise funds to bring life-changing assistance and hope to the poor and homeless
When: 3 until 7 p.m. Saturday, May 3
Where: Chicago Marriott Naperville Hotel, 1801 Naper Blvd., Naperville
Learn more: Ticket and sponsorship information is available at www.hesedhouse.org or by calling Mary Ensor at 630-914-6428.