Burgoo is a term used for many types of stew or porridge made from a mixture of ingredients.
Burgoo is a spicy stew it has its roots in the Irish or mulligan stew. Traditionally, the idea was to make a stew using whatever meats and vegetables were available and in good supply. That meant venison, squirrel, opossum (though not in modern recipes) or game birds; essentially whatever the hunt brought back. The local Kentucky barbecue restaurants use specific meats—usually pork, chicken or mutton—in their recipes which creates (along with spice choices) a distinct flavor unique to each restaurant. Cornbread or corn muffins are served on the side.
Burgoo making in Kentucky often serves as a common ground for social gathering among Kentuckians and their friends. Typically each person brings one or more ingredients and all the ingredients will be cooked in a big pot. Locally in Kentucky and surrounding areas such Indiana, burgoo is often used for fund-raising in schools. This form of Burgoo has been claimed to have been invented by the family of former Major League Baseball player, Ollie Beard. In Brighton, Illinois, a local traditional Burgoo is prepared and served annually at the village's summer festival, the Betsy Ann Picnic.
No standardized recipe exists, but it is a combination of at least three things. Today, the meat is usually pork or mutton, often hickory-smoked, but not limited to these more popular meats. A combination of beef, pork, chicken and mutton are frequently used, both hickory-smoked and non-smoked. Historically, however, it could have been any game animal during lean times, like during the Civil War. Today, for example, the Hilltop Inn of Evansville, Indiana (as featured on Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt television series) serves a variety made with squirrel meat. Vegetables such as lima beans, corn, okra and potatoes have always been popular. A thickening agent of cornmeal, ground beans, whole wheat or potato starch is all that most cookbook recipes use today, but it is traditional to add soup bones for taste and thickening.
The ingredients are combined in order of cooking time required, with meat usually going in first, vegetables second, and if necessary, thickening agents last. A good burgoo is said to be able to have a spoon stand up in it. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and other savory spices can be added much like in Cincinnati chili. Some varieties use cider vinegar, hot sauce, worcestershire sauce or dry chili powder. These condiments are often made available for people to spice up their own bowl as well.
It is still widely served in Owensboro, the self-claimed burgoo capital of the world. While burgoo in Owensboro is generally associated with special events (church picnics or BBQ competitions) it is sold year round in locally owned BBQ restaurants. Owensboro burgoo is made exclusively with mutton and pork as the meat base.
There are many different recipes for burgoo, with considerable disagreement over ingredients and method of preparation.
A type of burgoo existed in Louisiana, among the locals that consisted of a large number of squirrel brains and poultry eggs, scrambled together and eaten for breakfast. Scientists identified that some of the people consuming burgoo developed symptoms similar to Mad Cow Disease or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.
Burgoo was created by a Frenchman who disliked heavy fat-fried foods. According to a 1 hour and 50 minute documentary that airs on PBS, the actual dish of Burgoo is a soup like stew that is slow cooked, traditionally in cast iron kettles on open fires. But some modern creations have been made for cooking the dish, as also shown in the film. Depending on the area of the state of Kentucky, is what kind of meat used in modern day cookings of the fair. Tend to be made at social gatherings such as fairs and celebrations, this dish was reserved for large gatherings and made in huge batches for eating and fund but wild game is used and in some cases preferred. For more information, see the documentary on PBS, which covers the location of the dish made today, the history of its creation, as well as it is being made and sold at Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is held.
In the British Royal Navy, Burgoo refers to a thick oatmeal gruel or porridge. According to one source[who?], this was a mixture of oatmeal and molasses eaten for breakfast. Being cheap and easy to provision, it was said to be served excessively on some ships and was reputed to be unloved by seamen.