Sunday, July 24, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Kentucky II - Burgoo Me, Baby!

If the mint julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the official meal of Kentucky must be burgoo. People outside of Kentucky and the immediate area may not have any clue what this is, though there are variations by the same name in southern Indiana and Illinois. It is a close cousin to Brunswick stew, and is pretty darn hearty to say the least.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Kentucky
State Nickname: The Bluegrass State
Admission to the US: June 1, 1792 (#15)
Frankfort (14th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Louisville (largest); Lexington (2nd); Bowling Green (3rd); Owensboro (4th)
Appalachia, South, Upper South; East South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Cornbread & BBQ; Chestnut
Bordered by: Illinois, Indiana & Ohio (north); West Virginia (northeast); Virginia (east); Tennessee (south); Missouri & the Mississippi River (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: blackberry (fruit); gray squirrel (wild animal game species); Kentucky spotted bass (fish); milk (drink)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: common Southern foods; Kentucky-specific foods such as burgoo & Derby pie; fried chicken (though not "Kentucky Fried Chicken"); mint julep & Kentucky bourbon

Just like Indian pudding in New England, gumbo in the Gulf Coast and our own crab cake here in the Chesapeake, every family and community seems to have its own recipe for burgoo. To go back to Jean Anderson's book A Love Affair with Southern Cooking, while legends abound about the origin of burgoo - some say it came from as far away as Wales - many historians agree on the general facts:

[Most h]istorians... agree that burgoo was created during the Civil War by Gus Jaubert, a French chef serving Confederate general John Hunt Morgan. At war's end, Jaubert settled in Lexington, Kentucky, began making burgoo on a massive scale, and soon gained fame as "the burgoo king"... Jaubert's original recipe apparently contained blackbirds. Unable to say "blackbird stew" not only because French was his first language but also because he had a hairlip, Jaubert pronounced it "burgoo." Or so I [Jean Anderson] was told. Elsewhere I learned that those early burgoos contained mostly squirrels plus whatever vegetables came to hand. [Anderson 2007: 128]
Anderson goes on to note that she literally found hundreds of burgoo recipes. After my research, it seemed as if I had found about as many, with enough sheer variety that I just had no idea how to approach this project. Among the few common threads I found:

* Burgoo usually includes a few meats - this ain't vegan food here - and usually chicken is one of those meats. Mutton does not feature into all recipes, but many recipes specify mutton as one of those meats. Beef and/or pork also are common.
* Though no longer common, the early burgoos added all manner of game animals. Squirrel was, indeed, very popular, and you will still find it in a few modern recipes for it (No squirrel? Add chicken)
* Most recipes yield enough to feed a family reunion. Unless you want to cook for 20 people, you will need to pare down this recipe, which is what I did.
* This is not a quick thing to make. Food Network sent the ever-lovable Dave Lieberman down to Kentucky for his "In Search of Real Food" segment to see another massive burgoo-making operation in Owensboro for a Catholic Church function, and it wound up on YouTube:

After much hemming and hawing, I finally went with another Owensboro-based recipe for Kentucky burgoo - this from the Moonlite Inn in Owensboro. As they told NPR's "Hidden Kitchens" segment, it often featured chicken, mutton and various vegetables. I more or less followed Moonlite Inn's recipe, adding only beef and lima beans (which also pop up in many other recipes). And since I didn't have all day to make burgoo, and I didn't have a church full of people waiting for it, I went and cut the Moonlite Inn's recipe down to a quarter the size. The original makes about three gallons of the stuff.

The recipe: Kentucky Burgoo

To make the Moonlite Inn's Kentucky burgoo you will need more than a few ingredients:

* lamb meat (I bought about a pound for $6)
* chicken (I had this in the freezer - yes!)
* beef (not in the Moonlite Inn's recipe, but enough recipes have it that I wanted some in mine - about a half pound was $4, and I used half of that and froze the rest)
* cabbage and onion, ground up (I had the onion, and the half a head of cabbage, more than enough, was not much)
* a few potatoes, peeled (had those laying around)
* canned or fresh corn (not expensive)
* tomato ketchup, tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar (had them)
* lemon juice (same)
* salt, pepper and cayenne (same)
* lima beans (half of an inexpensive one pound bag was good enough)
* water - lots of water

The one other modification I made to the Moonlite Inn recipe was to bust out the slow cooker for several of the steps. There are burgoo recipes for the slow cooker, but I didn't like the ones I saw.

Start with your mutton and beef. Moonlite says to cover them with water and cook for a few hours. This is one part that is well-suited to the slow cooker (I cooked them for 2 1/2 hours on low), where you can just leave the red meats to cook while you do other things.

When they are done cooking, take them out, cut away the meat from the bone and fat, and grind up the meat in your food processor.

While you are cooking the mutton, cook the chicken in a large pot on the stove, in lots of water, until tender.

When done, again remove bones and skin from the chicken, chop up the meat and set aside.

Grind up your onion and cabbage in the food processor...

...and add it to the chicken broth, along with the diced potatoes, the corn, ketchup and more water. Boil, and then add the meats and all other ingredients.

Here I transferred everything from the pot to the slow cooker, and set it too cook for another four hours, again on low.

I spread out the meats and felt for any missed gristle, most of which came from the lamb.

In go the contents from the stove.

Then the spices, Worcestershire and tomato paste

I added the lima beans unsoaked. Laugh, if you must, but after only four hours I kind of liked their unusually firm texture. Of course, you should soak them overnight, though for me it ruined nothing.

It needs to cook for a while so it can become thick. A burgoo is not a consommé after all. In fact, I was wondering as I made this why Chunky Soup hadn't commandeered a burgoo for one of its pready-made "soups that eat like a meal".

Serve with bread, biscuit, cracker or corn bread.

This is, indeed, quite the hearty stew. Everything blends nicely together - in fact, I would say the mutton, for my taste, blended a little too well with everything else since I couldn't find it too easily. It doesn't matter: as long a process as burgoo-making is, it is well worth the effort. Plus, with all the things you could add to it, I can see why each family seems to have its own recipe. Now when I eventually get to Brusnwick stew, I look forward to seeing just where the differences are. Bonus fact: on Kentucky Derby day, burgoo often follows that fabled mint julep as a first course, sometimes in the previous glass once it's empty.

From one end of the South to the other: the next state on my list is a state with one of the most famously unique and regional cuisines, unique not just in the US but within the South itself. Read on next week as I try my hand at Cajun food when I finally get to Louisiana.


Anderson, Jean. A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections. William Morrow: New York, 2007.

Beaumont Inn. "Recipe: How to Make the Perfect Mint Julep". Video "How to Make a Mint Julep" by Beaumont Inn, featuring Dixon Dedman. Video posted on YouTube by Beaumont Inn (user BeaumontInn) on May 24, 2010.

Hellmann's. "Owensboro Kentucky: Burgoo". From the In Search of Real Food YouTube Series with Dave Lieberman. Posted August 6, 2007.

National Public Radio. "Moonlite Burgoo and Mutton Dip". From the
"Hidden Kitchens" Series. Originally published November 5, 2004.

Lacabe, Marga. "Margarita's Appalachian Menu". Date unknown.

Maker's Mark. "Mint Julep Recipe". Reprinted on the Beaumont Inn website. Date unknown.

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. "The Burgoo Soup Story / The Burgoo Recipe". Copyright 1996-2005 The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, Inc.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Kentucky" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Kentucky".


Nanc Twop said...

Interesting recipe, John.

Since they didn't have food processors, think the original cooks had to mince up all that meat?

What a chore...

John said...

Either that, Nancy, or they stewed it and stewed it and stewed it for so long that the meat just plum fell apart!