Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Kentucky burgoo: Don't ask, just eat

Game gave way to tamer ingredients

By Berry Craig
The Associated Press

OWENSBORO, Ky. - Burgoo can be a mystery to non-Kentuckians.

In 1892, some Philadelphians visited Louisville to help celebrate the state's centennial. They were invited to "a burgoo," according to A Treasury of Southern Folklore by B.A. Botkin.

The Yankees had no notion of burgoo, the famous Kentucky stew. But late one night, they heard a peacock shriek loudly.

"One guest, awakened by it, nudged his bedfellow and said, `That must be the burgoo,'" Botkin wrote.

The savory meat and vegetable stew is as synonymous with early Kentucky as another elemental elixir, bourbon whiskey.

Burgoo's heyday is gone. From Sassafras Ridge to the Big Sandy River, many Kentuckians have never tasted burgoo.

Ken Bosley's family owns the Moonlite, one of the few Kentucky eateries that features burgoo. He says many of his customers have never heard of burgoo.

Burgoo recipes vary. But the Moonlite recipe calls for mutton, chicken, cabbage, onions, potatoes, corn, tomato puree and seasonings.

In pioneer Kentucky, bourbon and burgoo flowed freely at political rallies, cabin raisings, turkey shoots and other social gatherings. Burgoo's main ingredients were wild game: venison, squirrel, rabbit, opossum, raccoon, quail and wild turkey, all slow-cooked outdoors in big iron pots.

As the frontier was tamed, so was burgoo. Burgooists started adding mutton, chicken, pork, beef and more vegetables.

"We like mutton because it gives our burgoo a little bit of a gamey taste like old-time burgoo," Bosley said.

Nobody seems to know where burgoo began.

"Some people say it started in Wales and came to Kentucky through Virginia," Bosley said.

Owensboro is the seat of Daviess County in western Kentucky, where, according to Bosley, local Catholic churches served burgoo before the Civil War.

"A lot of the churches still make burgoo on weekends in the summertime."

"Burgoo" might be an American Indian or a French word. The name may also be nautical. As early as the 18th century, English sailors ate a wheat porridge they called "burgoo."

Like the stew's ingredients, the pronunciation of burgoo varies. It is "BER-goo" in more sophisticated circles and "ber-GOO" among common folk.

Old-time Kentucky politicians knew that the path to a man's vote often passed his palate. Thus, burgoo - usually bourbon and barbecue, too - were served wherever crowds gathered.

Burgoo was so popular that a political rally or other event that featured the stew was called "a burgoo." Some burgoo bashes were epic. One of the state's biggest burgoo blowouts was in Mayfield in 1931.

Ruby Lafoon of Madisonville, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful that grim Depression year, played host to a feast featuring 3,000 pounds of beef, 1,000 pounds of pork and a mini-mountain of vegetables.

All was brewed in 54 iron kettles over smoky blazes that made the Mayfield Messenger mindful of "Chicago after a certain historic cow had kicked over a lantern and set fire to two thousand acres of property."

It wasn't just Kentucky politicians who bandied burgoo. Botkin cited a Kentucky coal man who lugged a trunkful of burgoo all the way to Washington, preserving the precious liquid in thermos bottles.

"Why?" somebody asked the coal man. "To bribe the National Coal Commission," Botkin quoted the purported reply.

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