Burgoo: It Raises More Questions Than It Settles

I don’t really think of the rural Midwest as having a culture. There’s no unique and immediately recognizable accent. If someone hears that I’m from the Midwest, they don’t immediately assume they can guess my stance on various social issues. We don’t all dance the same way or like the same songs or eat the same foods.

I mean, if I said, “Come with me to Swett’s for some down home Southern cooking,” y’all would immediately have some idea of what such a meal might entail.

But if I said, “Come with me to this restaurant for some good Midwestern cooking” we’d have a much harder time defining what that might be. There’d certainly be a lot of casseroles and some layered Jello desserts and macaroni and cheese, but they have those foods other places. There might be loose meat sandwiches and horseshoe sandwiches.

And, I suppose, there’d be burgoo.

I was discussing burgoo just this morning with a man who had no idea what I was talking about. This man, who shall remain nameless unless he chooses to out himself, is something of a meat expert and yet he’d never heard of burgoo.

He accused me of trying to warp him with some “Yankee” thing.

Could the burgoo be the one unique Midwestern cuisine item? The one thing we can look at and say, “If you’re eating burgoo, you’re eating Midwestern?” I did some internet research.

The home of the burgoo seems to be located in two places–Arnezville, Illinois, population 400 and Owensboro, Kentucky, population something or other that I couldn’t easily find so I gave up looking.

So, I don’t think it’s fair to call it “Midwestern” but I’ll happily put it in the “rural central U.S.” category.

The folks in Arnezville now claim to only use beef and chicken in their burgoo, but I swear I remember this being one of those things where every one went into their freezers and took out whatever meat they had left over and bringing it all into one place to cook the shit out of it and eat it up and make room in their freezers for hunting season. So, I could have sworn you’d end up with beef (of course) and chicken (of course), but deer and rabbit and turkey and whatever else you’d caught and killed the year before.

But none of the recipes are like that, so maybe I’m remembering wrong.

I do, however, remember how all the men in town would gather around to take turns stirring the burgoo all night long and how hot the fires were and how listening to them laugh and talk when the women weren’t around delighted me.

Yes, I’ll admit it confused me how all these men who could not go near a kitchen “because men can’t cook” could, when the cooking was transferred out of doors and into kettles over large open fires,find the necessary skills to hack up meat and vegetables and make a fine thick hearty soup*.

But I was a baby feminist at that point, and had the men all to myself, so I asked no questions.

*If our Food Ambassador would like to chime in here with an explanation of the difference between soup and stew, I’d love to hear it. I think of stews as being thick, but this is thick and is still called a soup.

17 thoughts on “Burgoo: It Raises More Questions Than It Settles

  1. Oh, yes, good point. I forgot about the squirrel. But, yes, there should be some squirrel in there too.

    I mean, why the fuck else do you have to cook it for 24 hours if you don’t have some game in there?

    Makes no sense. I think they’ve modified the recipe.

  2. I have never heard of this. Is the soup part brown and meaty or red and tomato-y? Are there vegetables in it?

  3. While I can’t claim expertise on Burgoo, I have yet to meet one guy who didn’t think he either:

    ~ Made the best damn chili around.
    ~ Or grilled the best damn steak/burger around.
    ~ Or whipped up the best BBQ around.

    I guess the meat craving comes with the Y chromosome. Me, I’m good at chili.

  4. I don’t really think of the rural Midwest as having a culture.

    Yeah, I know. I’ve been to Nebraska. Believe me, there’s no culture there.

    You ate fuzzytail rat? And to think people think southerners are rednecks.

  5. At Martha’s Restaurant down at Murray, KY, you could order scrambled squirrel brain with your eggs.

    I never was that adventurous.

  6. Dear Ms. Pants,

    If you will check your transcript, I said, “I don’t know what burgoo is” which is a far cry from “he’d never heard of burgoo.” I have done much research to become a Nameless Meat Expert, and I am familiar with the Moonlite BBQ in Owensboro. Their specialties are mutton and burgoo. I have no interest in researching either of those dishes in order to expand my Nameless Meat Expertise.

    That’s the inherent danger of you people with your self-appointed “blogs.” There is no journalistic oversight or integrity. Maybe an anonymous benefactor can hire you a fact-checker.

    If you’ll excuse me, I have to go handle my meat.

    Nameless Meat Expert

    cc: Nameless Meat Expert’s Lawyer

  7. Oh my god! I love “Ms. Pants.” I want people to call me “Ms. Pants” in real life. I want to become a gangster just so that when someone’s kneecaps are broken and the cops asked him who did it, he can say “one of Ms. Pants’ men.”

    Saraclark–it’s brown and meaty and yes, there are vegetables: corn, cabbage, potatoes, onions, etc.

    Exador–Nebraska only wishes it were Midwestern.

  8. Damn! My first official duty as Ambassador of Food and here I’m late. (I was painting the bathroom.)

    As a rule of thumb, besides as you mentioned stew being thick and soup thinner, which I would agree with, I would say the other major difference is the cooking time. Stews, because of the type of meat used in them, which are usually harder working cuts from the animal with more connective tissue, generally require much longer cooking times. Beef stew, pork shoulder, things of that sort. Squirrel would fall into that category too, I expect.

    So I would say Burgoo is a stew, no matter what they call it. Also, I’ve lived in the Illinois my entire life and I’ve never had burgoo. Then again, the southern suburbs of Chicago ani’t too rural.

    Next time I’m needed for Ambassadorial duties, perhaps we can arrange a signal, something like the Bat Signal. A big spoon or something projected in the sky.

  9. I’ve eaten burgoo in Indiana and West Virginia (in the latter case, in a tiny little holler-town called Burgoo). I found records of people eating it in Indiana back in the early 1800s (and New Yorkers being grossed out by it), so I guess it’s one of those long-simmer kind of dishes that did well in an iron kettle. Yes, gotta have the squirrel or it isn’t burgoo ?)…and you have to cook the shit out of the meat because you use cheap cuts or bits hacked off of something you just shot. It’s also a communal food to which you can’t say no when a cousin slops you a bowlful. It makes for a pretty good football food.

    It strikes me that Ms. Pants has assembled herself a group of people who can talk about damn near anything.

  10. Nebraska only wishes it were Midwestern.

    Maybe one of your readers is a Nebraskan and you can have a civil war, or as they say in Nebraska, “The War of Eastern Aggression”.

    You can catapult hot Burgoo at them and they’ll launch molten cheese back at you.

    I’d sell tickets.

  11. Lee. You should taste my chili, steak, and bbq. You’d slap yo daddy silly.


    Actually, the only other time I’ve ever heard of Burgoo was when watching the TV food network, ahem, I mean ESPN and someone was eating it at the Kentucky Derby.

  12. I looked burgoo up in the OED today. One definition was a gruel that seamen ate. The first use of it was 1750, and it was apparently also called “loblolly.” The etymology suggests it comes from the Arabic “brugul,” which is cooked, parched, and crushed wheat (bulghur). The best quote from this definition is: “Mark my words, you burgoo-eating..trowsers-scrubbing son of a bitch!”

    The North American definition, though, is the one we care about here: “A soup or stew made with a variety of meat and vegetables, used especially at outdoor feasts.” It looks like it was originally a Native American thing: (1743) “There is a Sort of mawse which grows upon the Rocks, which is of a Brownish Colour, which the Indians Eats frequent, they wash itt clean, then Boil itt for a considerable time till itts tender, then mixing it with Ruhiggan Burgoe or other Victuals, and Reckon itt Good Eating.”

    Apparently it’s also traditionally served at a barbecue for thousands of Kentucky colonels during the weekend of the Kentucky Derby.

    I reckon itts good eating too.

    Miss J

  13. I remember my mother-in-law’s church making burgoo years ago in Olney, Il, which is definitely downstate. Coming from Chicago, I had never heard of it before. Good stuff, actually.

  14. Check out the archives of The Wall Street Journal (we use it to wipe our butts when we run out of toilet paper after eating too much burgoo) and look for the article about squirrel burgoo and fried squirrel brains being linked to a squirrel-induced version of mad cow disease. As I recall, it featured a great description of the ritual involved in obtaining road-kill squirrels, frying their heads, and cracking open their skulls at the table to serve the brains to honored guests…most of whom seem to have come down with a variant of the brain-rotting prion disease that we associate with contaminated beef.

Comments are closed.