Franklin may have the best Burgoo unless you ask someone from Chandlerville who may disagree completely with someone from Meredosia or Winchester. And of course the folks in Roodhouse claim that their soup is better that what’s to be found in Glasgow, Gillespie, Woodson, Bluffs or Utica. Anyone with a bit of sense knows that it’s both dangerous and futile to argue the merits of any particular town’s recipe and cooking methods, but the city limits of Arenzville are adorned with signs stating, “Home of the World’s Best Burgoo,” so I suppose it depends not so much on your description of Burgoo, but of the word “World.”
The Oxford Dictionary doesn’t mention either Arenzville or Franklin, but says that Burgoo may originate with a thin gruel or porridge made by sailors in the 17th century, none of which likely ever made it to the Bluffs Burgoo. The word itself may come from “bulghur,” a form of cracked wheat, or “ragout,” a French word for a spicy stew.
The first Burgoo stews in this part of the world were thick with wild game, but current health laws have tamed the soup town to mostly chicken and beef with a garden load of vegetables. Some parts of the country pronounce it “BEAR-go,” but “BURR-goo” is favored in Central Illinois. Some spots in southeastern Illinois make a similar brew but down there it’s called chowder.
In 1982 an eleven-year-old boy at Arenzville’s Trinity School was asked to write a theme called, “What is Burgoo?” The young Charles Ater wrote, “It all starts with a kettle, then water, then a fire under the kettle, when the water gets hot, in goes the meat. The corn, carrots and lots of other things go into the world’s best Burgoo. Then everybody likes it! So you go to five kettles, it’s not enough so you go to fifteen kettles, a hamburger stand and a ride or two. They like it even more. The next year 35 kettles, and fourteen rides, two dunking machines, four or five games, a teenage dance, a car show, a tractor pull and a million other things. And to think it all started with one kettle!”
The genesis of the Arenzville Burgoo seems as mysterious and murky as the origin of the soup itself. The general consensus is that both the stew and the custom originated with the first American Indian settlers to this region, as they would gather to share the results of a bountiful hunt with their potlatch or feast. Other local experts say that the tradition migrated to Central Illinois with the influx of settlers from Kentucky and Virginia. The first official mention comes from the town records where in 1906 a group of citizens petitioned the town fathers to block off the streets for their soup fest. The first written recollections of Burgoo come via Charles Ater in an interview he did with his Arenzville neighbor Horace Virgin. Virgin said that he could remember stirring soup as a boy, and that the celebrations would be held in a cattle lot east of Arenzville. He said, “I worked all day and got nothing for my work except dinner which was Burgoo, and I didn’t like the stuff.” He went on to mention that Arenzville’s German settlers included large amounts of schnapps and the diners would often find their way home only with the help of a fellow German on each arm. The entertainment at these early Burgoos consisted of a “pigeon shoot,” at which pigeons were held under tin plates until the shooters would shout to have them released.
Schnapps, shotguns and dead pigeons play very little part in today’s Arenzville Burgoo as the town in annually treated to the sight of thousands of visitors for the two-day celebration. “It’s become a real homecoming,” said Tim Huey, who until his death was the town’s Burgoo-meister. It was Tim who would sneak through the line of steaming kettles at two in the morning to toss in a handful of what he called, “our secret ingredient.” “In fact,” said Huey, “the whole Arenzville recipe is a deep secret. That means it’ll cost you a quarter.”
The facts: 18, 40-gallon kettles cooked each day, and that comes out to about 1440 gallons of soup. Custom-made motorized stirrers keep the Burgoo from scorching on its 14-hour trip to the bowl. The Arenzville Burgoo has its own website, www.burgoo.org maintained by former resident Molly Daniels and the sight lists pictures, stories, and even recipes. A 1953 newspaper clipping states that President Franklin Roosevelt once asked the White House chef for Burgoo and the following recipe was provided: “25 lbs. beef, 9 old hens, 14 cans of corn, 8 gallons cabbage, 3 gallons carrots, 60 libs. of potatoes, 4 bunches of celery, 3 gallons of onion, 4 tablespoons of salt and pepper, paprika. Makes 50 gallons.” We assume that the President was having guests over.
The concept of “tradition” seems almost passé in a world of high-tech change, but Arenzville has somehow managed to maintain its volunteer work force for the annual Burgoo, the crowds continue to be huge, and at least for one weekend in September the idea of “community” is very much alive and well in this Cass County town tucked into an elbow of Illinois River Valley. And that, say the residents of Arenzville, makes it all worthwhile.