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The legend of burgoo

Updated on October 28, 2012

Now I like food and I love to cook, and I've tried a lot of different food in my life, including many different ethic dishes; thus, developing a worldly and daring palate. But, I wouldn't touch this stuff with a ten foot pole. I'm talking about Burgoo, a stew-like dish indigenous to Kentucky made in giant iron pots.

According to the legend of the Burgoo, the stew should cook for twenty four hours before being served. Burgoo chefs say that in preparing the burgoo, the mysterious ingredient that is supposed to bring it all together is added some time in the dark of the night. The chefs listened for and always heard a splatter in one of the pots. They believed that a big ole black snake would fall out of a tree into the pot. No one knows for sure whether this is true or not; but, like the legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale has been passed down through the generations.

In 1729, early peoneers began visiting the thick forests of eastern Kentucky. They were known as "long hunters" either because they stayed away months at a time or because of the long rifles they carried. One of the earliest dishes these pioneers made, while on their long hunting trips, was a hunter's stew. It was made from a recipe and consisted of whatever choice pieces of meat, from freshly killed game, were available. The meat, deer, elk, bear, or wild turkey was cooked in an open kettle over a fire. Dried sage and pepper were added to give the stew an English flavor.

Later, Kentuckians who had adopted the early pioneer recipe made the stew with deer, rabbit, squirrel, possum or meat from various birds. Restaurants would eventually add left over meat, such as pork, beef or lamb. There are many jokes in Kentucky about collecting "road kill" a meat for making Burgoo. Today, it remains a hodge podge of ingredients such as chicken, beef, pork and vegetables and is served at the Kentucky Derby from massive iron pots with crackers.

No one seems to know the origen of the word Burgoo. It is said that it may be a mispronunciation of the word barbecue, or of the words bird stew. Some believe the word originated in the seventeeth century on the high sea, where sailors subsisted on an oatmeal like porridge made from the middle eastern grain Bulgar. Nevertheless, it appears to remain a mystery.

The center of the Burgoo universe is Owensboro, Kentucky, located on the Ohio River. and known as the Bar-B-Q capital of the world, due partly to their yearly International Bar-B-Q festival the second weekend in May. Owenboro's Burgoo is a hearty stew made from mutton, chicken and vegetables. No two cooks prepare it the same way and their recipes are closely guarded secrets. About the only point on which Burgoo experts agree is that the stew must be thick, but still somewhat soupy.


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