In May 1999, I traveled down to Owensboro, Kentucky, for the 21st Annual International Bar-B-Q Festival. If you are interested in burgoo, this is the event for you!
The Bar-B-Q Festival is not just about barbecue. You can find a variety of entertainment, food, and fun. And of course -- burgoo. The main event at the festival is the cooking competition. Teams from the area compete to serve up the best barbecued chicken, beef, pork, and turkey, as well as the best burgoo. (Okay, I know this is a dangerous topic for fans of the Arenzville Burgoo, but believe me, these folks can really cook some tasty stuff!)
Teams are required to produce a minimum (so many hundred pounds) of barbecued meat and at least three 75-gallon kettles of burgoo. Judges select the best overall cooking team as well as category winners for the Team Cooking and the Classic Cook-Off. There are also winners declared for the Cooking Team Balloon Toss, Pie-Eating Contest and the Mutton Eating Contest (the winner is declared the Mutton Glutton).
In 1999, eight teams competed for the honors, with five of those teams organized by area churches -- Blessed Mother, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Pius X, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Precious Blood. The Crooked Creek Cooking Team, the Fraternal Order of Police and the United Steelworkers of America comprised the other three cooking teams.
I talked to several of the teams about their burgoo-making techniques, ingredients and materials, and I was interested to learn that while their recipes are quite different from Arenzville burgoo, the results are still characteristic burgoo -- rich in flavor, texture and aroma. Rather than use cast iron kettles, all the teams I talked with said that their kettles are cast aluminum, made by a company in Grandview, Indiana. Most teams used the familiar long wooden paddles to stir their burgoo (I was warned not to call it "soup," but I didn't get an explanation for that). I was directed to check out the "fancy rig" of the St. Pius cooking team, which has one motor driving stirring machines for four separate kettles. Some teams used wood burning fires to heat their soup -- er, I mean, their brew -- and others used propane.
If you want to buy the burgoo from a specific cooking team, you need to wait until the barbecue lines are open, when kettle service begins. (Check the event schedule on their website at http://www.bbqfest.com/. When I was there, it took only two hours to sell all 1,500 gallons of burgoo (get in line early). Otherwise, you can taste a "composite" burgoo served up by the festival organizers who mix burgoo from each of the teams to serve in single portions throughout the afternoon or at least as long as it lasts.
The festival also has contests, arts and crafts, musical entertainment and an antique car show. There is a special entertainment area just for kids with a petting zoo, games and other activities. One of my favorite stops on the festival grounds was the International Bluegrass Music Museum, which opened in 1996 in the RiverPark Center performing arts complex on the banks of the Ohio River. On the festival weekend, several bluegrass groups were giving free performances. One group honored a special request and played one of my favorite songs, "Kentucky." The museum is an impressive place and worth a trip to Owensboro all by itself. They recently received a large grant from the Commonwealth of Kentucky to develop their facility and programs, so you can expect to see good things coming from the museum in the future.
Burgoo has a strong tradition in the Owensboro area, and you might be interested to know that you don't have to wait until September to taste some good burgoo. The region's Catholic Churches have picnics throughout the summer, usually starting in June and scheduled every weekend throughout the summer. Their special brand of burgoo is cooked and served at each festival, which is open to the public. To see a schedule of the parish picnics, click on the link listed at the bottom of this page.
Owensboro's International Bar-B-Q Festival occurs each year on the second weekend in May, so if you are looking for an alternative burgoo experience, make plans to attend next year's event.
Click here for more photos.
The International Bar-B-Q Festival - http://www.bbqfest.com/
The International Bluegrass Music Museum - http://www.bluegrass-museum.org/
The Burgoo Page - http://www.angelfire.com/ky/burgoo/
2012 Parish Picnic Schedule