Kentucky Burgoo

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The Long And Winding Road

A dozen years ago, I started a thread at America’s premier bourbon forum, www.straightbourbon.com (“SB”), on burgoo. The discussion was Kentucky-centric since most of the people who participated live there like Bobby Cox or Bettye-Jo, and those from away are familiar with the Commonwealth as it’s known or allied traditions.

I first saw this on a menu there, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what it was. And I know a bit about food and food history. I thought it was native American possibly in origin.

First, what is it? It is a stew, usually it involves different kinds of vegetables and meats, and often there is wild game in it. But also, there is always a starchy base to it, usually from a cereal of some kind, corn or something else.  Okra can supply this part, or potatoes. It is a thinnish stew but not a soup. It is always cooked in large quantities and was (is) served communally: church functions, civic gatherings, barbecues, anything involving a large group and quite frequently the outdoors. I liked it the first time I tried it, at a small chain in Louisville which focused on local or down-home eating.

I don’t need to explain the long story of its origin because it was all set out in the thread at SB I mentioned, here. It’s British in origin, as so many traditional American foods prove to be if you look far enough. Pulled pork, too, say, or Ontario’s butter tarts.

Burgoo was a British naval dish, a gruel served to seamen on duty. The thread at SB documents older English books which mention burgoo, which have nothing to do with the U.S. The word is from bulgher – bulgher wheat – and you may say, that doesn’t quite get us to “burgoo”. But this form of wheat had a variant spelling and pronunciation, burghul. Pronounce that in an English-turned-southern accent and you get to where it ended.

On the ships, they would have added any meat they had, corned beef or salt pork from the barrels, any vegetables still on the ship. It was a wheat-based gruel filled out with any vegetable or protein to hand (not fish though). The Americans took it and adapted it to their countrysides and traditions, but you can still see the link to the original dish, both in how it’s made and that it’s served to a large group. Seamen originally, and now other largish gatherings as I said. It was communal in origin, and still is.

Now, how did it get so far inland? Kentucky and Ohio, another stronghold of burgoo, aren’t exactly Atlantic-seaboard. This is hard to say, but some migrants came to these areas from Virginia and other coastal states and must have brought it with them. In turn those people were English or influenced by the ways of the ships which brought the British to North America. Things have a way of moving around, migration is the story of man… But essentially it is one of those historical survivals.

The oldest annals of SB disclose an “atomic, bourbonic burgoo”, a member and his wife brought it to a “Gazebo”, the twice-annual gatherings of the SB clan I’ve mentioned before in Bardstown, KY. I never tried that one, I hadn’t joined the bourbon crew yet. But I’ve always been minded to make my own version of that. It had a good spicy note evidently and a glug or 10 of bourbon in there. (Ya think?).

Note re image: the image above of men cooking burgoo in Kentucky, was posted in 2004 to the SB thread mentioned by SB member Bobby Cox of Bardstown KY. It is believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.