Have you ever enjoyed a bowl of burgoo? I did earlier this year, in the dining room of the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky.
What exactly is burgoo? A sort-of thick soup, heavily seasoned, of Southern origin. Under the entry for stew, the (online) Encyclopedia Britannica noted that “Kentucky’s burgoo is similar, adding beef and potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other vegetables”. A 5/22/2023 online Taste of Home article What is burgoo and how do you make it? that I found while researching noted that burgoo is “a regional specialty around the Bluegrass State as well as parts of Illinois and the Ohio River Valley”. Everyone seems to think this southern dish started in Kentucky.
Everette Dick’s fascinating 1948 book The Dixie Frontier: A Social History tells us more. In the 12th chapter Dick tells us that after events like a log rolling there would be a feast: “A favorite dish was know as bergu or burgoo. It was a pot pie made from a mixture of vegetables of all kinds and wild meats such as squirrel, turkey, venison, and the like, highly seasoned and cooked in a big iron kettle out of doors”. Later in that chapter he noted that when a corn husking was finished: “After that came the supper, which always included burgoo”. Further, Kleber’s 1992 Encyclopedia of Kentucky tells us of burgoo that: “Its use as the name of a Kentucky stew is traced to Gus Jaubert, of John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry, who applied it to field rations he concocted and later prepared for political gatherings”. Very interesting.
As I sat inside the thick limestone walls of the circa 1779 Old Talbott Tavern, I awaited my burgoo. A cup of “Kentucky burgoo” at the OTT was $4.99 a la carte while a bowl was $7.99. I just had a cup, as an appetizer to my meal. The burgoo was rich and tasty, and much spicier than I had expected. The dark color, flavor, and texture of the meat struck me as beef. But there could have been several meats in it. There was a variety of vegetables, and it was indeed “highly seasoned”. I thought it was quite good, and would definitely order it again. I found the burgoo paired well with sweat tea.
There is no set list of ingredients to burgoo, only general guidelines. It is supposed to be thick, and strongly seasoned/spicy. It is often cooked in a large pot, in the past outdoors over an open fire.
I did not grow up eating burgoo. My mother fixed vegetable soup in my youth, to which she always with added chunks of beef. But there was no seasoning, it was not thick, and the color was much lighter than the burgoo I had at the tavern. And it contained only one meat. Good it was. Burgoo it was not.
I am glad I have experienced actual burgoo at the Talbott. Now I am stewing about making some for myself.
Joe Putnam is a life long resident of Kentuckiana, with ancestors having lived with a 75 mile radius of Louisville since 1780. He has blogged at God, Kin, and Soil and has indie published a few small books available on Amazon.