by Jay Jamison
When my family moved out here from New Jersey, 53 years ago, we became acquainted with new expressions. I remember hearing schoolmates talking about taking the hard road to Springfield. (Aren’t they all hard?) Sometimes, discussions would center around landmarks, like the Franklin elevator. Such expressions were confusing to a 14-year-old whose only acquaintance with elevators were the times I rode in them from one floor to another in high-rise buildings.
One day soon after we’d arrived out here on the prairie, my father asked me if I knew what burgoo was. I had no idea. The term was not only foreign to me, but I later discovered that several area towns often publicized that their burgoo (whatever it was) was the best. I’ve spent the intervening decades attempting to understand what this mysterious substance was.
My first encounter with the word burgoo was while reading one of the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester in my youth. I can’t remember which of the novels had the reference, since there are 12 of them, and I read every one. Suffice it to say, burgoo was presented in Forester’s novels, as some kind of soup, fed to sailors during the golden age of sail. In 1994, my good friend John Carpenter did some research into the origins of burgoo. He quoted Robert B. Downs in his book “In Search of New Horizons: Epic Tales of Travel and Exploration.”
“Captain James Cook carried burgoo aboard his ship Endeavor on his first voyage in 1768.”
Apparently, burgoo was a favorite among the crew, described as, “thin porridge with lumps of meat floating in it.” Carpenter noted that the appearance of burgoo here on the Illinois prairie comes as something of a mystery, since there is not the slightest trace of it on the east coast — and I can attest to that.
How did it get out here? Nobody knows.
I’ve been to a few burgoos since dropping anchor in Jacksonville in 1970. In some towns, folks young and old would say they had to stay up all night stirring burgoo. In some locales, this act of civic sacrifice was also the occasion to enjoy some malt beverages. Like lifting the hood on a car, bubbling kettles of burgoo often attract the curious and helpful, ready to give advice.
On Labor Day weekend, I found myself standing next to a large kettle of burgoo, which had been prepared and had been cooking over a fire since 7:30 a.m. In keeping with tradition, I also had a cold beer in my hand. At around 5 p.m. the burgoo masters began ladling out the product of their labors. A friend, Dan Tighe, wanted to take a picture of me stirring burgoo. He seemed to think a picture of me stirring burgoo would be hilarious. I was reluctant, at first. I hadn’t bought the ingredients, nor helped in their preparation. I had not stood for long hours stirring the concoction. However, like a politician at a ribbon cutting, I stood for the photo op after all the work was done, posing with a half empty kettle of burgoo. This is photographic evidence that I have finally arrived, shedding the last vestige of my non-burgoo past. Now, when asked, “Ever have burgoo, Jay?” I can truthfully say, “Yeah, I even stirred some once.”