For years, the history of barbecue has been shrouded in misty myths and tall tales, from angels delivering sauce recipes in dreams to convoluted explanations for the origins of barbecue terminology. A few weeks ago my fellow blogger Daniel Vaughn dug into the spelling and origins of the word “barbecue” itself, including the oft-repeated claim that the word comes from the French phrase barbe a queue, meaning “beard to tail”, a shorthand for cooking a whole hog. The Oxford English Dictionary, in what ranks as one of the all-time gems of lexicographical disdain, sniffs this derivation away as “an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word.”
Similarly absurd conjectures surround burgoo, the signature stew from Kentucky that often accompanies barbecue. The most-repeated account of its origins involves a Civil War soldier named Gus Jaubert creating a stew in a pinch as a way to serve blackbirds, the only meat his unit could find. Depending on the account, Jaubert either had a thick French accent or a harelip (or both), so when he announced his “blackbird stew,” it came out “burgoo.”
It’s a cute story, but facts get in the way. Gus Jaubert was a real person, the undisputed “Burgoo King” of Kentucky in the late 19th century. His parents were French immigrants, but Jaubert himself was born in New York and raised in Kentucky, so he was unlikely to have had a foreign accent. By his own account, his famous stew was something he learned from other barbecue men after the Civil War was over.
|Here lies a great stew man. (Lexington, Kentucky)|
In a newspaper interview, Jaubert explained that burgoo originated as a Welsh stew in the British maritime service and was brought by sailors to Virginia. Originally it was made from a shank of beef, chickens, corn, tomatoes, onions, and bacon, but he omitted the bacon, increased the beef and chicken, and added potatoes to thicken it up.
No blackbirds required.
Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.