Burgoo, likely a combination of bulgur and ragout, is a thick stew most closely related to the Brunswick stew popular throughout the South (which is itself is likely a descendant of Irish or Mulligan stew). The dish is of unknown origin, but most sources speculate that burgoo was a creation of early Virginia and Kentucky settlers, and from there, burgoo recipes spread through other states in the Southeast and lower Ohio Valley.
Although burgoo is mostly identified as a signature Kentucky dish (as it is served in many local restaurants and popular annual outdoor events, such as Derby Day), Arenzville, IL, has declared itself the “Home of the World’s Best Burgoo,” and the town’s burgoo recipe is a closely guarded secret. Regardless of the recipe, however, every burgoo has three things in common: meat, vegetables, and spices.
The Strange Stew That is Burgoo
Burgoo is a true “whatever’s in the kitchen” kind of dish, as early settlers made the stew from the game they had killed that day combined with any available vegetables and spices. While early burgoo recipes would have included wild game such as squirrel, rabbit, hens, and/or possum, most modern burgoo recipes stick to beef, chicken, veal, and/or lamb.
Traditionally, burgoo is cooked in large iron pots outdoors over an open flame for up to 12-14 hours (the long cooking time is necessary for thickening). Recipes for burgoo are as varied as the cooks who make it and are often handed down through families from generation to generation.
Where to Find Burgoo
In addition to its presence on restaurant menus throughout the upper South and Ohio Valley, burgoo is often a staple of festivals, political rallies, church socials, and other large gatherings. Some towns even organize events focused almost solely on burgoo. The Arenzville, IL Burgoo Festival, for example, occurs annually on the first Friday and Saturday after Labor Day. And Owensboro, KY (which claims to be “the center of the burgoo universe”), holds an annual riverfront barbeque festival at which 1500 gallons of Burgoo are served to attendees.
Although burgoo is a regional dish, diners do not have to travel any further than their computers if they want to sample the stew. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, KY sells burgoo by the gallon via their website for delivery within the continental United States.
Despite its funny name, devotees of burgoo take the stew quite seriously, protecting the secret ingredients of their family’s or town’s recipe with a fierce pride. Regardless of who claims to have the best burgoo, one thing is certain: burgoo is a stew unlike any other.