Burgoo and the Senator

George_Graham_VestOf Burgoo and Horseshoes

That would be a good premise for a tv sitcom don’t you think? Burgoo and the Senator. It’s the Gaslight Era, Kansas City, Mo. A down-home favourite son, when not orating his honey-tones in Washington, tells stories in the cool granite vestibule of the old courthouse.

The show’s name comes from his uncommon knowledge of that toothsome southern specialty, burgoo. The setting is Fifth and Oak Streets, the old courthouse.

First episode opens:

Senator: “Why people did I ever tell you how a gen-u-ine burgoo is con-structed?”

Mouthy lounger: “Yessir Mr. Senator, many times”. (Murmurs of agreement amongst the multitude).

Senator: “I did? You all must be possessed of a powerful memory”.

Another in the crowd: “Tell it again suh, we like the way you talk”.

Senator: “Well son I don’t need to tell it again because some fool scribbler wrote a story ’bout me in the paper and it reached as far as Fort Worth my word”.

(Hands out copies of the Texas newspaper. The scenes unroll onscreen, following the scribbler’s tale):


A party of capitalists from the East, embracing two of the members of the Lombard Investment company of Boston, who have been here several days looking after their investments in this city, had their first taste of burgoo and their first experience of a burgoo party on the banks of the Blue river last Thursday. Several local capitalists having them in charge and wishing to show them something new under the sun, to them at least, decided upon a burgoo party and Thursday morning they started for the Blue river, bright and early, going out as far as Sheffield on the dummy line, taking carriages there and driving a number of miles up the river to a very pretty shaded spot which was sufficiently secluded to suit the promoters of the party as one of the essential features of a burgoo party in seclusion. For it should be known to the uninitiated that a burgoo party is a party where, to use the vernacular, “everything goes”.

It might be well to explain first what burgoo is and what is meant by a burgoo party. There are two definitions of burgoo extant. One is the dictionary definition of the doctrinaires who would not know burgoo from a horseshoe if they were to meet it in the road. The other is by Senator Vest and is a definition suggested by an experience of long standing, a more than speaking acquaintance with burgoo. The dictionary says burgoo is a kind of


or thick gruel used by seamen and says it is derived from the old English buryum, or yeast, and gawl, which means gruel. Without any intention of throwing obloquy on Mr. Webster one is constrained to remark after a careful perusal of the definition that he had never been within a mile of burgoo if that is really what he thinks it is. Senator Vest’s definition is much better. The senator was seated in the courthouse in this city one day surrounded, as usual, by a crowd anxious to hear one of his inimitable stories, when the conversation turned to picnics, and someone in the crowd asked the senator what in the world burgoo was.

The senator paused a moment and said: “A native Missourian who doesn’t know what burgoo is deserves to be transported to Kansas or Iowa, or some other state equally benighted, and there live out his life surrounded by Republicans and prohibition. If there is any worse fate than that on this earth I don’t know what it is.

“My dear sir, the man doesn’t live who can tell you what burgoo is for the simple reason that no two kettles of burgoo were ever made alike. But perhaps by relating a little incident that happened at a burgoo pnrty that I participated in once I may give you a pretty good idea of what it is. The picnic was held on the Current river, a beautiful stream in the southern part of this state, famous for the clearness of its waters and the swiftness of its current. It was several years ago but I remember the day as well as if it was yesterday. When I drove up it was quite late and everybody else was on hand. The burgoo was in course of making then and although I had frequently eaten it I had never seen it made, and wanted to see exactly what went into it.

“You will find it is always the old man of the neighborhood who makes the burgoo, and walking over to the big caldron, I found him stirring about in a thick bowl of soup with a big stick. He dropped in a piece of chicken, a squirrel, a rabbit, onions, cabbage, parsnips, fresh beef –  well I don’t know what else he didn’t put in. Right above him a big tree spread its boughs and on the limb over the caldron was


While I was trying to engage the old man in conversation – a futile task by the way – right down into the soup there dropped a young woodpecker. The pin-feathers were just sticking out of its wings, and its lone neck und head didn’t have a feather, while its eyes stood out like goggles. The old man paused stirring for a moment as if a little startled; and then resumed as he remarked ‘Just in time, just in time!’. That’s about the best idea of burgoo that I can give you.”

The senator’s definition gives a pretty good idea of what burgoo is. Anything from the heavens above or the earth beneath that falls into the caldron is as the old man said “just in time”…

(The story continues, ever more rollicking, in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 24, 1890. Read the remainder, here, and your imagination will unroll further tv scenes as effortlessly as a cup of good burgoo will go down. Or a cup of good sour mash, for that matter. The two, often, went together).




Note re images. The first image above, of U.S. Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri (Dec. 6, 1830 – Aug. 9, 1904), is from his Wikipedia entry, and is in the public domain. The second image is of the Current River in Missouri and was sourced from the Southeast Missourian’s websiteBoth are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welomed.