Burgoo: The Fellowship of Meat

Harvey Simmelink

hide captionPublic radio listener Cynthia Becker called to share how burgoo stirs up memories of her late father, Harvey Simmelink.

Courtesy Cynthia Becker
Men at work: The barbecue team at Blessed Mother Catholic Church in Owensboro, Ky.

hide captionMen at work: The barbecue team at Blessed Mother Catholic Church in Owensboro, Ky.

Public radio listener Nancy Penrod called the Hidden Kitchens hotline to tell us about the 150-year-old burgoo tradition in her hometown of Owensboro, Ky. There, men gather all night to grill on an epic level — mutton, chicken and a cut of pork they call Boston butt — to prepare for parish picnics that serve thousands and raise funds for their church communities.

The Kitchen Sisters traveled to the fire pits, churchyards, cake stands and bingo games of St. Pius X, St. Lawrence, St. Williams and Blessed Mother Church to investigate the ritual of communal roasting.

Story Notes

"We called Nancy Penrod to thank her for the tip she left with the Hidden Kitchens hotline. She offered to pick us up at the airport, drive us two hours to Kentucky and take us to the fire pits and churchyards of her hometown. We spent the weekend together hitting every parish picnic we could find. Nancy is a grandmother, a public health nurse, a cattle woman and a devoted public radio listener. She had never thought about how stories were gathered and put together. By the end of the weekend, she was helping us produce this story, setting up interviews for us, introducing us to all the key burgoo men and women and telling us she would drive and co-produce any story within an eight-mile radius of her home in Nashville, Tenn. The city of Owensboro couldn't have found a better ambassador of burgoo.

Burgoo is not confined to Kentucky. Cynthia Becker, from Indiana, called with stories of her community's burgoo festivals and of burgoo's role in her family. Cynthia, an equal rights officer with FEMA, teaches a diversity workshop for FEMA workers from all over the United States. At the beginning of each workshop, people introduce themselves and tell each other about a food unique to their family when they were growing up.

"Food helps people make a connection. Sharing their stories of food reveals their varied family traditions and their differences. It's a way to introduce talking about the differences we all have — and the unique skills we each bring to the workplace," Becker says.

Kavitha Cardoza, our collaborator in Illinois, traveled to the burgoo festival in Arenzville, and documented the 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. burgoo shift of 30 or more men working the fires, not a woman in sight.

— The Kitchen Sisters

Special thanks to: Ken Bosley & the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn; L.K. Bircham & the Burgoo Team at St. Pius the Tenth; Martin Higdin & the Burgoo Barn Gang, Darrell Cecil and the Dip Makers at St. Lawrence Parish; Father Freddy, Dan Stalling & the Mutton Men at Blessed Mother Catholic Church; Burley Phelan and the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce; Walter Estes, Fenton Johnson, Peter Thompson & Kathy Kallick of KALW's Bluegrass Signal; and radio producer Kavitha Cardoza.

The Burgoo Tradition

Kentucky-born writer Fenton Johnson, whose award-winning works include Crossing the River and Keeping Faith, discusses the burgoo tradition and reads a recipe for the dish from the original Joy of Cooking.

Listen: Johnson on the 'Joy' of Burgoo

Listen: Johnson on the Primitive Appeal of Male Bonding by the Fire Pit

Listen: Johnson on the Finer Points of Skinning a Squirrel, from 'Joy of Cooking'

Burgoo in Illinois

Listen: Hear from the Midnight Burgoo Team in Arenzville

'Hidden Kitchens' Hotline

Listen: Cynthia Becker of Indiana Shares Family Stories of Burgoo

Listen: Ellen Burkett Morris of Louisville, Ky., Shares the Lore of Burgoo-Smelling Tree Snakes and Kentucky Colonel Barbecues

Join the Discussion

About the Music

The music of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, who was raised 30 miles from Owensboro, fills this story.

1. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Kentucky Waltz," from the CD Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: The Early Years on Vanguard Records.

2. "I'm Working on a Building," from the CD Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys: The Gospel Spirit on MCA Records.

3. "Bonaparte's Retreat," from The Music of Kentucky: Early American Rural Classics 1927-37 Vol. 1, on Yazoo Records.

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