There are many theories about the recipe for the Arenzville Burgoo--its history, the actual contents of the soup, the existence of a secret ingredient.... And after having witnessed the soup-makers at work, I can say with some certainty that there really is a secret ingredient.
I don't recall when I have ever tasted such good soup as what I ate at the 1998 Arenzville Burgoo. The blend of flavors from all those hand-chopped vegetables, savory beef, and tender chicken was in perfect balance, and each bowl was better than the one before. Naturally, you know by now that I am no unbiased critic of this stew, but on the other hand, I have always been one for whom one bowl of burgoo was a sufficient dose for a year or more. However, this year, the soup tasted so good that I ate two bowls at the festival and asked Mom to get another half-gallon from the kettle service so I could take some home. She picked up a full gallon, since my sister in Utica, IL, also wanted some for her freezer.
(By the way, my half-gallon didn't make it all the way to my house. I stopped to meet my sister in Springfield and remembered that I had forgotten to bring along her half-gallon, which was still sitting in Mother's freezer. I gave Martha my half-gallon instead, knowing I could still claim the other one. In a poetic little twist, I also unknowingly handed over the cash that Mom had stuffed in the box beside the jar of soup (this was Mom's attempt to keep me from paying for the soup.) When my sister reached Utica with both the burgoo and the money, a friend asked her, "Hey, what's the deal? Did Molly have to pay you to take that burgoo off her hands?")
Despite its popularity, burgoo is still a much maligned oddity of the region, with all sorts of indelicate descriptions and notorious claims made on its behalf. It's not hard to find someone who just can't stand the appearance -- let alone the taste -- of the soup, and even true fans of the stew will delight in introducing an uninitiated out-of-towner to the sight of the bubbling kettles, often making the offhand remark that the recipe includes anything that didn't make it across the road the night before.
Maybe burgoo is an acquired taste. This year's soup tasted especially good to me, but maybe it was because watching the soup preparation had only whetted my appetite. I think it was probably the secret ingredient...
It was always drummed into my head that the Arenzville soup is made from a closely guarded recipe, and if you ask the cooks, you will never get a straight answer on the authenticity of that claim. When I was a child, I remember that the town honored a man named Elza Perry, who lived in Meredosia and was said to be the author of the recipe used by the town. According to Gerald Beard, Mr. Perry's recipe achieved such acclaim that one of the American presidents (Gerald wasn't sure, but he thought he recalled that it was Franklin Roosevelt) asked to have the chef at the White House prepare a bowl of burgoo according to Mr. Perry's specifications. "So, in a way," Gerald says, "Arenzville burgoo has a reputation that goes all the way to the White House."
Elza Perry's recipe has appeared in various publications, but like most burgoo recipes, it is intended to make a crowd-sized quantity of soup -- at least fifty gallons. And there's nothing in Mr. Perry's recipe that is conspicuously listed as the "secret ingredient," so possession of his formula still does not solve this mystery. Even though I watched them add nearly every ingredient to the kettles, I realized later that I had not really seen the whole process, since I arrived after they had already started and left before the final ingredient was added.
Some have said that paprika is the secret ingredient, and others claim that there is another substance added to each kettle and that its identity is known only by a single person in charge of making the soup. Ken Bradbury once told me that he witnessed the adding of the secret ingredient when Tim Huey was in charge of cooking the soup. "He put something in each kettle, and I never did see what it was," Ken told me. "He said it had something to do with assuring that the first bowl of soup would taste as good as the last one."
Others would argue that it is the technique of cooking the soup that gives the Arenzville burgoo its unique flavor. As someone who has seen his share of Burgoos over the years, Clyde Ginder points out that knowing when to add the water to the kettles and how long to let the stock cook down is an art that can make or break a good kettle of soup. Don Wessler believes in starting with good cuts of beef, and in earlier days, Charley McLain insisted on making sure a proper amount of suet, or beef fat, was in each batch.
Though I cannot disprove the existence of an unlisted ingredient in the contents of the soup, I think that the success of the Arenzville recipe has as much to do with the people who make the soup as it does with what they throw in the kettle. After all, putting on a festival of this magnitude is enormous work for a little town. The planning, the preparation, the set-up and the plain and simple work involve a couple hundred people. That's at least half of the population of Arenzville. Year after year, you may see the same person doing the job he or she has been doing for the last three or four decades, and you notice when someone else has taken over the job. Sometimes familiar faces are replaced by a family member in the next generation, almost as if the assigned job has become a matter of inheritance.
And then there are those unique people such as Harry Bentsen and Barbara Fowler, who drive from a distance to work at the Arenzville Burgoo just because they like being involved with the community spirit in the town. Barbara, who grew up in Chicago but now lives in Ohio, simply likes the neighborly atmosphere and fun that comes from being involved with the Burgoo. She showed up two days early this year, just so she could lend a hand with cleaning and chopping the vegetables.
Besides learning more about the complexities of the soup-making at this year's Burgoo, I gained a better appreciation for the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes at each year's festival. For instance, the members of the grounds crew and sanitation committee each take on a less-than-glamorous job that must be done after the crowd leaves and when they are already exhausted. Henry Huppe said he volunteered for the job on the sanitation committee, and when I asked him why, he simply said, "Well, it was a job that needed to be done." While picking up the trash is not the most popular job on the list, the town takes pride in its neat appearance, and thanks to efforts of Henry and his committee members, such as Paul Manuel (left), the park is as neat as a pin each morning after the crowd has departed from the day before.
When the last bowl of soup is gone and just before the final entertainment act takes to the stage, there are always a few announcements made over the public address system. Frequently there are results of a drawing or raffle to broadcast to the crowd, and sometimes there is a reminder that the hamburger stand still has a few sandwiches available. And every year that I can remember, Gerald Beard takes the microphone for just a few moments to thank everyone who contributed to the success of that year's festival. This time when I heard him say those words of thanks, I remembered how when I was a kid I used to wonder whom he was talking about in such glowing terms. In my eyes, the Burgoo was just a case of neighbors working together on a job they all wanted to do. I suppose I believed that the Burgoo had as much purpose as a potluck picnic -- everyone is supposed to get some good food to eat, the kids are entertained, the adults talk endlessly about things youngsters don't understand. No one really assigns credit for the success of a potluck, but everyone always goes home tired but happy.
But now that I have looked a little closer, I realize that the Burgoo is a gift that each person in the town gives to the community. There are no wages paid for the long hours worked cleaning the kettles, dishing up soup, setting up plank seating, running the bingo tent, frying the hamburgers, and on and on. The town pays for the supplies and hires what entertainment they can afford, but none of it would come together if it weren't for all the people who suspend their schedules in early September to go to the town park and help out. Some people use vacation days from their jobs, some farmers just don't get as much done in the fields, and some people just work a 24-hour day. Besides the satisfaction of a job well done, the words of thanks from their neighbors and friends are the only pay they get.
What the town manages to make from the Burgoo each year is divided among three community organizations -- the American Legion, the Community Club and the ATA (Anti-Thief Association). Each one of these groups, in turn, uses the funds to develop community causes. Over the years, they have built and equipped the town's recreational facilities in Sam Batis Park, built a shelter (or two) in the town park, erected a granite monument to honor the veterans, bought uniforms for the kids' baseball teams or the high school band, paid for Arenzville kids to attend swimming lessons in Jacksonville, sponsored students in state conferences, and probably a dozen other causes that went unnoticed.
There are undoubtedly easier ways to raise money than to spend two days cooking soup you have to convince some people it is safe to eat, but the Burgoo has always been Arenzville's town project. It brings together a wonderful mix of ingredients, and the flavor of the event is improved by the people who make it happen.
Thanks for reading. I hope to see you at the Burgoo next year.
(when is the next Burgoo?)
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