Friday morning arrives too quickly, and it is 8:30 before I am out of bed. The schedule of events doesn't really start until mid-day on Friday, but the first day of burgoo sales always brings a steady stream of people for the kettle service. Just as Don Wessler predicted, people are already lined up to get some soup to take home.
Empty gallon jars are ready for use by the kettle service crew. Each kettle holds approximately 75 gallons of soup, enough to fill the jars on this table.
Some people come early because they are picking up a gallon of soup before they head to work that day. People with job duties at the Burgoo want to take home some hot soup and let it cool down so they can refrigerate it and return in time to help serve the afternoon and evening crowds. (It takes several hours for a single gallon to cool, and it works better if it's divided into smaller amounts.)
Others may be buying soup to send home with out-of-towners, and some people are simply eager to get their burgoo. Perhaps they are devoted fans or maybe they were some of the people disappointed last year when the soup was sold out before they got their take-home containers filled.
Tony Thomas explains to me how the burgoo sales are managed throughout the day.
"When we open up the kettle service," he says, "we sell the soup until there are only three kettles remaining. We know we have to reserve that amount of soup for the dinner crowd in the evening."
Depending on how the sales are going, the kettle service might be suspended in early afternoon or perhaps not at all. The burgoomeisters keep a close eye on the amount of soup on hand, and if they have plenty of soup at 6:30 p.m., they may open the kettle service line once again. The goal is to run out of soup around 7:30.
Why? Because on Friday night, the entire cooking process starts again, and those kettles must be empty. On the second night of the Burgoo, it's even more critical that the kettles be emptied because everything has to be cleaned up, returned to its owner or put into storage for next year.
"We hate to see people go away disappointed because we stopped the kettle service," Tony says, "but on the other hand, we don't want any leftover soup. We do our best to make sure there's enough on hand for the evening meal. It's always hard to predict how long the soup is going to last."
As the morning wears on, the park starts to fill with people. The entertainment starts in mid-afternoon with some musical groups on the stage, and air is filled with the smell of wood smoke, cooking soup and frying hamburgers. The buzz of conversation between friends and neighbors starts to drown out the sound of the carnival rides.
The Burgoo attracts people from all across the region, and some out-of-towners make it an annual tradition to stop in for one of their meals. For the last 15 years or so, the employees from the Illinois College Admissions Office have stood in line for a bowl of soup at the Arenzville Burgoo, and this year there is a rumor that a group of people from Peoria have chartered a bus for a day-trip to Arenzville on Saturday.
By 6:00 p.m., the park is nearly full of people, and all the volunteers in the food stands are busy. The hamburger tent is selling burgers as fast as Jack Burrus and Richard Ahrens can grill them, and Tom Burrus works steadily to scoop ice cream for the pie ala mode. When he pauses for a photo, three pieces of pie are suddenly thrust under his nose, waiting for him to catch up. The burgoo sales are going steady, and people seem to agree that the cooks did a good job. "Best soup in twenty-five years!" I hear someone shout to the men hauling the steaming buckets to the serving line.
By 8:00 p.m., the soup line is closed, though the other food booths keep going strong, and already the kettles are being filled with water to prepare the beef stock for the next batch. As the sounds of country music fill the park, I decide it's time to go home for a good night's sleep. When I step off into the shadows and the sounds fade behind me, I recall that melancholy feeling I had as a kid when a day at the Burgoo came to an end. Others are heading home too, carrying their jugs of soup and towing pleading children. As I walk down the sidewalk past the old firehouse, Hondo Huey steps out of his truck and heads for the kettles.
"Goin' to do it all again, Hondo?" I ask him.
"Yep. Got another long night," he says. And he smiles.