From seafarers, to soldiers, to stallions, the Kentucky stew known as burgoo has a rich historical lineage. According to culinary sleuths, its name likely comes from an oatmeal porridge that sustained Scottish and French sailors. In the American South, however, burgoo shows little resemblance to its potential predecessor. At its most basic, Southern burgoo is a thick stew full of meat, vegetables, and spices. The versions of yore likely included game meats such as squirrel, venison, opossum, and raccoon, while today’s recipes include chicken, beef, and pork.
Some accounts credit a Confederate soldier and cook named Gus Jaubert with burgoo’s rise to Kentucky culinary prominence. Popular lore tells of Jaubert cooking thousands of gallons of the stew for fellow fighters during the Civil War. After his death, Jaubert’s crown as the state’s burgoo master passed to a Lexington grocer named James T. Looney. The grocer-cum-burgoo-chef became so well-known as the “Burgoo King” that a Kentucky Derby horse was named after him. The moniker must’ve been a good luck charm: Burgoo King won the race in 1932.
During the last half century, burgoo’s part in Kentucky’s popular culture has only grown. No bluegrass fair, political rally, or barbecue is complete without a steaming pot of the stew. It is said that there are as many versions of burgoo as there are Kentuckians, and cooks take secret recipes to the grave. However, one thing is roundly agreed upon: A good burgoo must be cooked over an open fire where the smoke can impart its flavor on the final product. Serve it up with cole slaw and bourbon, and you’ve got yourself a true Kentucky cookout.
Need to Know
Look for burgoo at festivals throughout the South, but especially at the annual International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Where to Try It
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn2840 W Parrish Ave, Owensboro, Kentucky, 42301, United States
One of many Kentucky eateries with burgoo on the menu.
- Barton, C. (1978). "It's nothing but a big bowl of soup!": Kentucky burgoo and the burgoo supper. Kentucky Folklore Record, 24(3), 103