Sep 10, 2013

A burgoo breakdown

What do small Illinois towns Brighton, Roodhouse and Utica have in common?  If you’re from one of them – or if you've been to enough of them, you probably shouted out a simple one word answer:  Burgoo! 

Well, maybe that would never happen, but for dramatic purposes, go with me on this one, readers. 

What is burgoo, exactly?  Well, the answer may depend on the town, and even the particular burgoo.  It’s basically a thick stew cooked in huge cauldrons, usually under a wood fire and large enough to become a town tradition.  Seriously, burgoo festivals are pretty much the most exciting things these towns have to look forward to every year. 

The burgoo can include everything under the sun, but since current day health departments tend to discourage the outdoor cooking use of wild game and varmints, most burgoos today include a variety of beef, pork, chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, corn and something to use as a thickener.  (The burgoo pictured below actually had some pasta in it.  Well, it looked like pasta, so I’m going to continue to believe it.)  The ingredients are then cooked slowly – very slowly – and stirred constantly – sometimes literally overnight – until the burgoo is one thick consistency.  Burgoo enthusiasts say a good burgoo is one where you can stand your spoon straight up in it.

For many in Central Illinois (yes, burgoo is a serious source of pride in these parts), the sleepy small towns of Arenzville, Chandlerville and Franklin comprise the biggest bulge in the “Burgoo Belt.”  And a few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to experience my first burgoo at Chandlerville’s annual festival.  I am proud to declare I am no longer a burgoo virgin. 

Chandlerville, a village with a population of 553 hearty and happy people, is located in Cass County.  Look for where the Sangamon River approaches the Illinois River, and you’ll find Chandlerville.  As you can probably imagine, their burgoo festival was held right in the historic downtown.  Once I found the one bar downtown, I didn't have trouble following the directions from there.

See, I just missed the parade, but the carnival rides (the few they had) were already hopping.  I surmised that a few carnies must live nearby.  I didn't think that was a stretch of the imagination.

The center of the activity was downtown’s Elmwood Park.  The park had plenty of trees to provide shade on a typically hot August afternoon.  They even had a permanent stage set up in the park for entertainment.  I’d say it’s a good thing for your town to invest in if you’re going to have an annual burgoo where the attendance doubles your population – if only for a few hours.

The large picnic shelter at the edge of the park is, of course, where the magic happens and where everyone congregates to enjoy the star attraction.  Here you see the cooks in progress …

And here you see the line forming.  They will serve no burgoo before it’s time.  And not until they've sung the national anthem.  I’d say these people at the front of the line definitely know a little something about burgoo.  

Actually, the wait in line took about 40 minutes, and that was after a walk down to the bar to wait it out.  Here you get a better view of the whole operation.

One thing I can say about this burgoo festival – it was priced right!  A 20-ounce bowl for $3?  A three-piece fried fish dinner for $6?  You can’t afford not to eat!  My choice for lunch:  a bowl of burgoo, the two-piece fish sandwich, a side of slaw and homemade peach pie for dessert.  This is living right, folks. 

Everything was quite enjoyable, even though I found the burgoo to be somewhat bland.  I guess that’s a concession to cooking so much burgoo for the masses.  And when the age of your average burgoo-goer is nearing 60, bland is probably best.  The fish was crispy, flaky and melt-in-your-mouth good.  The pie, of course, was outstanding. 

And in case you were wondering, I did document my brief visit to Dick and Joannie’s the bar conveniently located closest to the burgoo. 

I guess their old location on Main Street had burned down or something, so they were making do with a spot right next door. 

My friends and I certainly enjoyed our time there.  The Stag Beer was cold, so how could we not?  My one regret:  To complement the burgoo festivities, the bar was selling fried turtle for lunch, but I did not have the opportunity (or any remaining appetite) to try some.  

Hi Joe and Shayne!
And I eventually solved the bland burgoo problem.  I purchased a half gallon container to go.  Again, I couldn't afford not to.  Plus, the fake wife insisted I bring some back for her.  You’d be surprised how well burgoo tastes with a little Tabasco sauce.

Keep your eyes posted, faithful readers, for I hope to begin blogging shortly on last month’s road trip to Colorado and other points west, including Kansas City, Mo., Dodge City, Kan., and a spa with yurts to sleep in.  How’s that for building suspense?

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