Racing season. Hot Springs. Oaklawn. What says Oaklawn more than fast ponies, cold beer and hot corned beef sandwiches? That’s right, the legendary Oaklawn Corned Beef Sandwich. You ever wonder why, or where it’s from? Read on.
Corned beef itself dates back to antiquity.
There’s no corn in corned beef; the name comes from the process of salting the meat, or “corning,” back in the British Isles in the Middle Ages.
Times change, and the corned beef served up at Oaklawn isn’t salted, it’s pickled.
The beef you get at Oaklawn comes from the Kelly Eisenberg Company in Chicago. It’s a special pickle that’s unlike that I’ve had on corned beef elsewhere.
It’s cooked up in these specialty tubs that hold 150 pounds of beef to boil at a time.
Three of these were going when Chef Bill Graham and I clambered down into the depths of the Oaklawn kitchens.
They’re carefully monitored and stirred.
Over on the other side of the kitchen, a cadre of gentlemen worked to dismantle the briskets and slice them into sandwich-friendly shards. They worked at a frenetic pace.
On opening weekend, when corned beef sandwiches are sold for fifty cents, an estimated 70,000 people came through Oaklawn. That Saturday alone, Chef Graham estimated they would go through three to four tons of corned beef.
The sliced beef is put into bins and pots and whatever it takes to get it to the park’s concessions.
There are 26 concessions across the park -- 23 in the building, three out in the infield. Some specialize in things like gourmet hot dogs, pretzels and such. There’s the famous Oyster Bar, which serves up oysters on the half shell, jumbo Gulf Shrimp, sea salads and more. But you can get your corned beef fix at several locations along the concourse and at the Sports Tavern.
On the far side of the kitchen I observed ladies packing up sandwiches in take-out boxes.
Some of the smaller concessions will use these.
But most are made to order hot on that rye bread.
The corned beef sandwich is usually $5.50. Sauerkraut is a buck more (making it a Reuben, of course).
The racetrack has other signature dishes, such as the bread pudding with whiskey sauce and the Oaklawn Signature Margarita.
Sitting out in the sun in the concrete stands, watching the crowds -- I saw nachos, gigantic pretzels, hot dogs under layer after layer of relish and onions and cheese and chili, bags of pork rinds and peanuts, and lots of beer.
I've even been privy to the construction of one of those sandwiches at the Arkansas Sports Tavern, just before the opening of the track. I was expecting some strange ritual, some multi-stepped fascination of procedures to follow. Instead, my eye and even my camera barely caught the quick assembly, as the expert meat wranglers pinched and plopped that mound of meat out of its hot steamy bin and onto the bread, topping it and handing it over effortlessly.
Mine? I like with a touch of horseradish sauce, happily provided. There’s also mayo, mustard and ketchup available for those with different tastes.
Talked with several of the employees there… and was pretty impressed. Many of these ladies and gents have been coming back to work the 54 day season for dozens of years. There are a couple of instances of generations of families sharing the workload. I understand that hiring starts at the bottom and the track tends to promote from within.
There’s just a few weeks left in racing season. Go get yourself down to Hot Springs and out to Oaklawn. Take a little blowin’ around money, and don’t forget to pick up a corned beef sandwich. It’s a meal for kings and paupers alike.