Skip Navigation

Burgoo, the Stew

By Allen D. Arnold

Participants arrive by the truckload for the 10th annual Burgoo International Cook-Off in Webster Springs, October 8, 2005. Photograph by Randy Timm.

Last October, Webster Springs’ Burgoo International Cook-Off celebrated its 10th anniversary. Throughout the day, an estimated 500 people gathered here to sample and celebrate this hearty hunters’ stew, which has been made and enjoyed in this region for ages, and for which a local town and creek are named. [See “Bergoo, the Town,” by Mark Romano; page 34.]

When this event was founded in 1995, Merle Moore was the director of Webster Springs Main Street. She introduced the idea of establishing a community-sponsored annual festival that would be tied to, and would celebrate, the area’s rich cultural roots. “As we began searching for the specific theme for this festival, one topic that came up again and again was the mountaineer hunting tradition of Webster County,” Merle recalls.

“And then,” she says, “I remembered W.E.R. Byrne’s account in Tale of the Elk of hunters who camped beside the creek at the head of the Elk. They had the idea of naming the creek, where they camped and enjoyed the hearty one-pot meal made from their day’s hunting, Bergoo [spelled with an “e”], in commemoration of the stew. I made the connection, and that really is how the idea for the Burgoo Cook-Off was spawned.”

Not everyone was familiar with burgoo, and Merle had to explain to a number of people what it was. “I drew on my library background in finding the information, but with all my research and digging, I couldn’t find any clear way to trace the lineage of burgoo,” Merle says. “I knew that they make a lot of burgoo in Kentucky — especially at Derby time — and they even claim to have originated the concept.

“What I did find in my research is that this stew is real Appalachia. It actually predates the Revolutionary War, and it is often described as Appalachia’s adaptation of East Coast Brunswick stew.” Merle explains that burgoo is a thick, hearty, highly spiced stew, usually prepared in large quantities, that includes a variety of game. It is slow-cooked, often over an open fire, for a long period of time until the meat falls off the bone. Vegetables are then added, and it is simmered until it thickens.

Merle brought to the burgoo planning discussions significant previous experience with this type of community festival effort.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.