“Burgoo is not a dish,” says Russ Kennedy, “it’s an event!”
In a time when fast food seems to be the order of the day in our harried society, a “dish” that can take up to 10 hours to prepare if all the ingredients are raw to start, is an anomaly. That makes standing over a cast-iron pot and stirring the mix with something resembling a canoe paddle more a labor of love than a job.
“The history of burgoo captures my heart,” say Kennedy, a lifelong Frankfort resident who grew up in Bellepoint and was a member of the last graduating class from Good Shepherd High School in 1970.
“There’s so much tradition that’s entwined with Kentucky history I would hate to think of losing that.”
From 2002 until the “end of the season” in 2010, Kennedy and his wife Susan cooked barbecue for events, festivals, church picnics, wedding receptions — wherever they were called to and could go. Then it became too much.
“We started doing barbecue as a profit-making hobby,” he said. “The last week we were in business we did three events.” Some might see that as more than a hobby.
Then three or four years ago, they got into burgoo, pronounced BUR-goo by some and bur-GOO by others. It really makes no difference how one says it. The thick, hearty stew is a combination of several meats, vegetables and spices, each “burgoo chef” having created and perfected his or or her own recipe.
The Kennedys are assisted in their commercial venture by their son, Jack, and David Snyder.
Brief history of burgoo
According to the handout titled “A Brief History of a Great Kentucky Tradition” and an article in “Epicurious” by Jean Anderson, burgoo — not unlike country ham, Hot Browns, bourbon balls and barbecue — has long been associated with Kentucky. Its history goes back to the first settlers coming into the state — and has stuck around for all sorts of events.
While its popularity faded in the last half of the 20th century, according to the handout, burgoo’s making a comeback thanks to people like Kennedy, the late James Conway who stirred the cauldron in the parking lot of VFW Post 4075 on Second Street, and Conway’s disciple Rick Caudle who now lives in Midway but finds his roots in the Millville area having done burgoo for the Millville Hillbilly Daze Festival for many years.
“Rick uses James’ old paddle,” Kennedy said.
Folk tradition used to have it that burgoo featured “everything that didn’t make it across the road the night before” mixed with fresh, seasonal vegetables featuring lots of tomatoes, special sauces and ingredients.
“In fact,” Kennedy says, “now all the meats we use – including beef, pork and chicken – are USDA approved.” To cut the cooking time from 10 to four hours, the meats are pre-cooked in a smoker, mixed with the veggies and sauces and slowly stirred with a paddle.
“Time was when wild game was used, but no longer if you’re going to serve it to the public,” he said. “It’s not as exotic but probably safer.”
Paddle is the test
“My burgoo is ready when the paddle will stand straight up in the middle of the pot,” says Kennedy. “That takes time and a lot of stirring!”
Purists cook the mix over a slow-burning wood fire as the pioneers did, and Kennedy has done that. But, to ensure an even heat without the hassle of feeding wood to a fire, Kennedy and his crew of Kentucky’s Best Burgoo LLC use a small propane-fired stove with an open flame.
Time may have changed the ingredients and the fire, but one thing Kennedy won’t compromise is his insistence that the cooking vessel be cast iron. “You can get them in all sizes, but they need to be made of cast iron because the heat is so even.”
Dan Liebman, owner of Staxx BBQ in Frankfort, is high in his praise of Kennedy’s burgoo.
“One of the great things about the U.S. is its regional foods, and Kentucky has its share, burgoo certainly among them,” said Liebman. “Russ Kennedy makes the best burgoo I have ever tasted, a delicious mix of meat and vegetables that is seasoned just right.”
Liebman offers Kennedy’s burgoo during the winter at his restaurant. It’s sold every day the Firehouse at Buffalo Trace Distillery is open.
“He goes with us to the BBQ Festival in Lexington every year,” Liebman said. “True BBQ enthusiasts love burgoo. This year the weather was very hot, but he sold out.
“But as important as the taste is the fact Russ embraces the tradition of the dish. He expertly slow cooks it in an iron caldron over an open flame and stirs the burgoo with a wooden paddle, the way it was intended to be cooked.
“As Russ says, when you serve a bowl of burgoo the spoon should stand upright. His always does.”
Just like the paddle does in the cauldron from which each bowl is served.
“I keep little plastic spoons in one of my apron pockets,” says Kennedy. “If someone walks up where I’m cooking and makes a comment about how good it smells, I reach in my pocket and get them a spoonful to taste.”
Then and there he has a convert.
“When you’re cooking a pot of burgoo,” Kennedy said, “people gather around and talk. That’s when cooking takes on real meaning beyond just preparing food.”
Kennedy says on more than one occasion he’s had groups of strangers gather ‘round while he’s cooking and before long they’re talking, laughing and they’ve gotten to know each other.
“It’s about bringing people together and them having a good time.”
And making sure the paddle stands straight up when the cookin’ is done.
Stovetop Kentucky Burgoo
- 1-1/2 pounds beef stew meat, chunked
- 1-1/2 pounds pork roast, chunked
- 1-1/2 pounds B/S chicken parts, chunked
- 1/3 cup, apple cider vinegar
- 1 celery heart, sliced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cups cabbage, shredded
- 1 large (32-oz) can, diced tomatoes
- 1 regular (15-oz) can, tomato puree
- 2 regular (15-oz) cans, sliced potatoes
- 1 regular (15-oz) can, sliced carrots
- 1 regular (15-oz) can, whole kernel corn
- 1 regular (15-oz) can, butter beans
- 1 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 TBSP Salt
- 1 TBSP Black pepper
- Hot pepper sauce
Place meats in a large stock pot, cover with water. Add ½ cup Worcestershire sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 4-5 hours, stirring occasionally, until meats are fall-apart tender.
Add apple cider vinegar, raw vegetables (cabbage, celery and onions) and simmer for one hour, stirring frequently. Add canned vegetables (diced tomatoes, puree, potatoes, carrots, corn and butter beans) and simmer one more hour, stirring frequently.
Add salt, pepper, hot sauce (to taste) and remaining ½ cup Worcestershire sauce. Continue simmer until liquid cooks to desired consistency. Adjust seasonings (to taste).
- 6 squirrels
- 6 rabbits
- 6 chickens
- 6 pounds beef
- 6 pounds pork
- Plenty of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, carrots, cabbage, celery, butter beans, onions, okra and peppers (amounts and ratios at cook’s discretion)
Directions: Combine all ingredients in large cast-iron rendering pot, covering contents with water. Simmer for 24 hours, stirring regularly and adding water as may be required. Remove bones, add salt and pepper (cook’s discretion) and serve with cornbread.