In 1887, Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular tucked an item about Kentucky burgoo in amongst the trade tips (“light, perfect ventilation and dryness” are good to store whiskey), business gossip (Abe Hirsh did some business in Chicago, “so the boys say”), and market information.
To say it was written with not a little humour is an understatement, but that was the Kentucky style, and still is. Relaxed, down-home, set a while. This little tableau illustrates a detail of town life that would vanish, not so much with the modernization of the liquor business after 1900, but with Prohibition’s clanging iron door.
But burgoo survives still in the South and Midwest, as I said yesterday. Its distant English roots are blithely forgotten, which is fine, and the Americans made something new of it anyway. When you read the term barbecue in the account, don’t mistake: it refers here simply to an outdoor gathering where a meal is served al fresco.
As the article notes, burgoo is a stew. It’s not a roasted or pit-cooked dish. Owensboro knows well the differences because it specializes in another Kentucky regional food, mutton barbecue. There’s another likely English throwback, mutton..
One of the features of Owensboro life is a burgoo club of about seventy-five members, consisting of the leading business men of the place. This club gives a burgoo (which, by way of explanation, is a barbecue, where birds, chickens, squirrels, beef, pork and dog, if one is handy, are thrown into an immense pot, stewed together, seasoned and eaten between drinks) every two weeks during the summer, and the fun these meetings afford keep the boys laughing for the balance of the twelve months. When you attend a burgoo you are first asked to drink, and if you decline, you are made to drink. This drink is big enough to put you in fine shape, and you must then ascend a platform and dance before the crowd. It’s no use to ask a man who has attended one of these burgoos if he danced, because he simply has to dance. Before the day is over every man is called upon for a speech, and a speech he is bound to deliver. It makes no difference how old a man is nor what position in society he holds; if he attends an Owensboro burgoo he must walk the chalk line and do as he is bid. The record for the past summer shows that Fred Clarke of the Sour Mash Distilling Company received several prizes as the best dancer on the grounds, while M.P. Mattingly got the prize for oratory.
Kentucky still enjoys burgoo and one of the best places to get it in a restaurant is at the famed Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro. The restaurant sells it in a bowl soup-style and in gallon jugs to take away. You see it below amongst many offerings older and newer at the 2008 Owensboro BBQ Festival. Appropriately, Owensboro burgoo uses mutton in the mixture.
The image above was sourced here. Attribution is as follows: By Afreeman (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.