Burgoo, also known as Kentucky burgoo is a thick multi-meat and vegetable stew which is a specialty of Kentucky.
A bit like Kentucky’s version of Louisiana gumbo, burgoo can contain any number of meats, such as pork, veal, beef, lamb, poultry, and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, green peppers, okra, lima beans, and okra. Original versions of the stew tended to use small game meats such as squirrel, rabbit, or fowl; basically whatever a hunter could get.
The word burgoo was originally used as the name of an oatmeal porridge served to English sailors in the 18th century and beyond. However, one origin tale says that the stew’s name arose from the Civil War when a soldier with a speech impediment was trying to say “bird stew.” It is also possible that comes from the Italian word ragout.
Kentucky burgoo is eaten all year around, but like most stews, it’s popular in the colder months. It is also a traditional part of Derby Day in Louisville, along with the official drink, the Mint Julep.
Like Louisiana gumbo, burgoo has some typical features, but there is not just one recipe. Each cook has his own preference and perhaps even ‘secret ingredients,’ zealously guarded. It is served in many local establishments but authentic burgoo is said to be produced outdoors in iron kettles, and, for even more authenticity, served in tin cups. Any other material, it is said, will impair the taste.
There is actually claimed to be a burgoo inventor, a famous civil-war cook named Gus Jaubert aka Wango Jobier. Jaubert cooked for the Confederate general John Hunt Morgan during the war. According to the legend, he invented the first burgoo using crows or blackbirds, since there was no other meat available. In another version, Morgan’s men went hunting and provided wild game for the stew, but no birds. Apparently, it was so delicious, the officers at all of it and the men got none!
The Jaubert legend gives a third origin for the burgoo name. Jaubert was said to have a cleft palate. Whether a cleft palate or just a French accent, when he was asked what he called the dish, he said what sounded like bur stoo. It’s just a story, of course, and as such stories go, no attempt is made to explain how “stoo” became “goo.”
As you can probably guess, there is no burgo inventor; at least not one we can identify. Burgoo is mentiond in printed newspapers as far back as 1830, and plenty burgoo references are found prior to the war, describing its being served at outdoor gatherings.
The Burgoo King
After the time of Jaubert, there were two burgoo kings, Colonel James T. Looney, who made a mean burgoo especially popular at political gatherings, and a horse who won the 1932 Derby. Looney’s burgoo was being served at a large charity race at Colonel E.R. Bradley’s private track. Over 7000 people attended, and the burgoo was such a success that Bradley proclaimed Looney “the Burgoo King” and promised to name a colt after him.