Kentucky Burgoo

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The Long And Winding Road

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

I first saw burgoo on a menu in Kentucky, and for the life of me could not 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 burgoo? It is a stew, usually involving different vegetables and meats, and often wild game. But also, there is always a starchy base to it, usually a cereal of some kind, corn or something else.  Okra can supply that part, or potatoes. It is a thinnish stew but not a soup. It is always cooked in large quantities and was, still is, served communally: at church functions, civic gatherings, barbecues, anything involving a large group and quite often in 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 do not need to write here the long story of its origin because I set it out earlier at SB as I mentioned, see here. Burgoo is British in origin, as so many traditional American foods prove to be if you look back 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 sources that mention burgoo, which have nothing to do with the U.S. The word is from bulgher – bulgher wheat. You may say, that doesn’t quite get us to “burgoo”. But this form of wheat has 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, and any vegetables still on hand. And so burgoo was a wheat-based gruel filled out with any vegetable or protein to hand – not fish though, as far as I can tell. Americans took it over and adapted it to their country-sides and traditions, but one can still see the link to the original dish, in how it’s made and that the service to a large group. Shipboard seamen originally, and now large community gatherings on land.

In a word burgoo was communal in origin, and still reflects this.

So, 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 burgoo with them. In turn. those people surely were English or at least, influenced by the foodways of ships that brought the British to North America.

Things have a way of moving around, migration is the story of man and cuisine no less. But essentially burgoo is one of those historical survivals, an oddity if you will.

The oldest annals of SB disclose an “atomic, bourbonic burgoo” a member and his wife once brought to “Gazebo”. A Gazebo in this sense is the twice-annual gathering of the SB membership, always in Bardstown, KY. I never tried that version of burgoo, I hadn’t joined the SB bourbonites crew yet.

But I’ve always been minded to make my own version. It had a good spicy note evidently – and a glug or five of bourbon, of that there is no doubt.

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 research and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.