The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Bluegrass Manna

By Mel Tharp © 1986

Issue: June, 1986

Manna was the food miraculously given to the Israelites in the wilderness as they fled from Egypt. The Reader's Digest Encyclopedic Dictionary defines manna as "any nourishment received as by divine bounty."

If this definition holds true, Kentucky burgoo can justifiably be called "Bluegrass manna." Burgoo is uniquely western Kentucky. Perhaps it is a gift endowed on western Kentucky by God in his bountiful generosity.

Along with barbeque and country ham, burgoo is frequently mentioned as one of Kentucky's most popular and distinctive regional dishes. Described generally as a thick stew with every possible ingredient included but the proverbial kitchen sink, burgoo has been known in the state since before the Civil War, and continues to be particularly popular in the Bluegrass region and portions of western Kentucky.

The origin of burgoo is uncertain. Sources list as many origins as there are ingredients in burgoo. Some of the most credible sources name Gus Jaubert as the "inventor" of burgoo. Jaubert supposedly created the stew for General John Morgan's Calvary officers during the Civil War.

Some sources refer to Virginia as the place of origin for burgoo and suggest that it is a derivative of Brunswick stew. The word "burgoo" derives from a sailor's term for oatmeal porridge. Some unofficial and highly-biased sources insist that burgoo was the "mess of pottage" which Esau was willing to accept in exchange for his birthright.

Actually, it is more likely that a form of burgoo was popular back in pioneer times when hunters killed deer, turkeys and other small game and threw them all into one big pot.

It is interesting to note that burgoo cooks generally get their recipes bequeathed to them from previous generations. My first burgoo cooking experiences dates back to my school days. Back in McClean County it used to be a tradition for schools to sponsor ice cream suppers in the fall. Preparation of the burgoo involved everyone in some form or fashion. The women and children would peel and chop the vegetables and dice up the meats, while the men would attend to the actual cooking. The monotonous stirring of the stew was a constant and demanding task.

It appears that no two burgoo cooks make their concoction exactly alike. There are almost as many ways to make burgoo as there are Kentuckians. It is only natural, therefore, that a certain amount of creativity is utilized by the cook in the preparation of this traditional dish.

Gus Jaubert, Kentucky's first master burgoo chef refused to divulge the contents of his recipe to others. Gus would insist with a great air of secrecy that "I put in a few special things, but that's a secret."

Most burgoo cooks do agree, however, on some points. It is important to have garden-fresh vegetables. It is also generally conceded that you can't make good burgoo inside a building. An open fire is important. You must allow the smoke to get to the kettle.

Burgoo making has traditionally been a kind of "art" reflecting the individual cook's personal tastes and creativity. However, like many other regional foods, burgoo has fallen victim to the "easy way" syndrome. Some civic clubs hold self-styled burgoo suppers using hamburger meat and even canned beef and gravy. They also use canned vegetables. The end result is a potpourri of mush that faintly resembles blenderized baby food.

All burgoo cooks have their own personal recipe. This is my own recipe that I use for outings and church socials. After years of experimentation, this combination of meats and vegetables seems satisfactory to me:


2 lbs. beef chuck
2 lbs. veal chuck
2 lbs. pork butt
2 lbs. breast of lamb
1/2 lbs. salt pork
2 frying size chickens
4 large potatoes
2 large onions
6 carrots
2 green peppers
1 med. head cabbage
1 qt. tomatoes
2 lbs. fresh corn
2 pods red pepper
1/2 lbs. lima beans
salt (to taste)
4 tbls. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. black pepper

Cook meat in boiling water until tender. Remove from stock. Cool. Remove meat from bones and dice. Prepare and dice vegetables. Combine meat, vegetables and meat stock. Cook until mixture thickens. Add corn during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Add salt, Worcestershire sauce and black pepper. Serves 25.

Burgoo is more that just a regional dish. It is a culture; a way of life. No political campaign should be launched or a thoroughbred sale be conducted without burgoo as the main dish.

Burgoo is a food usually made in large amounts for large numbers of people. There are documented records of burgoo being concocted in prodigious amounts. "King Gus" Jaubert brewed six thousand gallons of burgoo during the Grand Army of the Republic encampment in Louisville in 1895. His recipe called for six hundred pounds of beef, two hundred pounds of chicken, a ton of potatoes, eight hundred pounds of tomatoes and vast quantities of other vegetables.

Burgoo may be nothing but a stew, but nevertheless, it is a regional dish in which Kentuckians take a great pride. And well they should! Who could help but appreciate a concoction that literally bombards the palate with a massive array of tastes and flavors, such as beef, chicken, lamb, veal, potatoes, onions, lima beans, carrots, corn, peppers, cabbage, salt, pepper and even a little red wine thrown in occasionally to top it off.

There are those aficionados among us who will insist that burgoo is mentioned in the scriptures. Indeed, one might convince himself that the Old Testament is making a case for our delightful dish in these verses:

"And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given of the corn of heaven."

"Man did eat angel's food: he sent them meat to the full." Psalms 78:24,25.