January 21, 2007 / 2:20 AM / 13 years ago

Kentucky fears loss of traditional critter dish

OWENSBORO, Kentucky, Dec 22 (Reuters Life!) - Kentucky, the untamed western frontier when the American colonies declared independence in 1776, is struggling to keep a taste of its past alive — a stew traditionally made from roadkill and veggies.

A bowl of burgoo as it's served at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky. Burgoo is a stew-like soup that is as peculiar to Kentucky as bluegrass and bourbon. The Moonlite cooks some 35 to 70 gallons of soup a day, seven days a week. REUTERS/James B. Kelleher

Kentucky revels in its wild west past with the name of legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, attached to motels, medical clinics, a national forest and even a state highway.

So it is of mounting concern in one corner of Kentucky, just south of the Indiana border, to see waning interest in a traditional dish known as burgoo that Boone himself almost certainly ate.

Burgoo is a stew-like soup of meat and vegetables that the settlers who poured through the Cumberland Gap survived on as they tamed this region. It featured whatever meat — squirrel, rabbit or possum — the backwoodsmen bagged on any given day.

But Owensboro in the western part of the state is now one of the few places where burgoo is still served in restaurants, at church picnics and barbecue cook-offs, albeit in a slightly updated form.

In many ways, burgoo is similar to Brunswick stew, another one-pot, slow-cooked dish popular in the south.

But unlike Brunswick stew, which has been embraced by epicures, burgoo is just a generation removed from its roots as a roadkill-and-veggie ragout. Indeed, in the late 1990s, during the scare over mad cow disease, health officials warned Kentuckians to stop eating squirrel brains, which, like squirrel meat, remains a something of a delicacy here.

“It’s basically a poor man’s food,” says Pat Bosley, whose family runs the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, which bottles burgoo and sells it by mail order.

“There’s a whole lot of wild game in burgoo’s history.”

POPULARITY WANING

In the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, burgoo — now usually made with chicken and pork — is as ubiquitous as mint juleps.

But during the rest of the year, it’s hard to find — except in Owensboro.

Settled by Welsh sheep herders, the city of about 54,000 on the Ohio River is the burgoo capital of Kentucky, which means the burgoo capital of the world, and the stuff is a year-round fixture on the menus of places like the Moonlite, Old Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q and George’s Bar-B-Q.

As a result, lovers of the folk food make the trek to Owensboro to satisfy their craving.

“It’s a big deal in this community and a big source of tourism dollars,” says Jody Wassmer, the president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, who grew up in southern Indiana, where a burgoo-like stew with turtle meat is popular.

“You can go to the Moonlite Bar-B-Q on a Saturday afternoon and count the out-of-state license plates.”

The cooks in Owensboro, however, honor the city’s Welsh founders, and burgoo’s gamey roots, by making their version of the stew with barbecued mutton.

“It gives it a — I don’t want to say gamey flavor, because that’s got a negative connotation — but a robust flavor,” says Bosley.

Slideshow (2 Images)

A burgoo-making contest is also one of the highlights of Owensboro’s annual International Bar-B-Q Festival where there as many recipes as chefs.

But Bosley says as time passes, the taste for burgoo even here in Owensboro is waning as chain restaurants push the traditional mom-and-pop restaurants out of business.

“We sell less and less of it every year,” said Bosley. “It’s a folk food so the old timers still want it. But fewer and fewer young people are eating it. The tradition’s being lost... (and) it dilutes the food heritage of this country. It’s sad.”

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