Burgoo (2008)

Stan Woodward on making the video Burgoo

Making Burgoo

The documentary on Burgoo grew out of an over abundance of footage I shot intentionally for the Burgoo sequence which opens and closes the earlier film, "Southern Stews". In doing research on the widespread color and varying traditions of Burgoo cooked all across Kentucky in preparation for shooting "Southern Stews", I realized that one day I would return to KY to shoot an entire documentary on Burgoo. I had done the same kind of over-abundance of footage-gathering as I travelled the South shooting the story of Brunswick stew, seeing that traditions like Carolina Hash and Chicken Bog in South Carolina, Sheep Stew in Virginia, and especially the roots of Barbecue in South Carolina begged for separate stories and documentaries. All these folk heritage foodways had things in common that, taken altogether, provided a richer and broader picture of the South. Through this foodways portal much insight into what makes the South the South and its people distinct from other parts of the country grow apparent. So it became my mission to capture footage as I moved through the South in pursuit of stories on Brunswick stew and Southern stews in general to shoot footage of different related traditions with a mind to tie all these traditions together in a "big picture" through producing a series of individual films on each tradition. These films would identify common threads and themes that ran through all, tying them and the people in them to their common roots in an agrarian South.

For Southern Stews I partnered with my old It’s Grits film mate, Jay Williams, who at the time served as Chief Curator of the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum and coordinated its Folklife Resource Center. Jay had proposed making a documentary called Southern Stews. It was to tie together a major exhibit and my newly-completed documentary on Virginia Brunswick Stew. Jay recognized the extensive additional material I had turned up on what turned out to be an entire family of Southern stews, all with a lot of shared traditions and similar stories of origin. Re-establishing ties with Jay led to a decision to depart from the SC Governor's School for the Arts to work full time producing folklife and Southern culture documentaries in partnership with the McKissick Museum's Folklife Resource Center, which I continued until my retirement in 2014.

I had returned to South Carolina in the year 2000 so I could be near to and assist my Mother in her care of a 92-year-old aunt who was ten years her senior and was fighting being placed in a “Senior Care” facility in Spartanburg. I had taken a job as Distance Learning Coordinator for the not-yet-completed South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities http://www.scgsah.org/ at the same time that I became reacquainted with Jay Williams at McKissick Museum and the state of the traditional arts and folklife in South Carolina. Re-establishment ties with Jay quickly led to my pulling away from the Governors School to devote my full time to what turned out to be a most productive partnership with McKissick Museum

In my first year in South Carolina, Jay began researching the folklife and folklore surrounding historic Southern stews. Most of the public were blind to the rich and storied connection these stews had to Southern Americana and the very fabric of Southern culture and everyday life. This called for a film that would feature the Southern agrarian stew culture and give it visibility. So I began splitting time between the Governor’s School work and my work with Jay as we co-planned and co-wrote film production grants to fund the Southern Stews documentary. We met with success when a grant was awarded by the Southern Media Documentary Fund run by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which had previously provided several grants during the five-year research and production of the Virginia Brunswick Stew documentary when I was living in McLean, VA.

With funding in place, Jay and I began the process of conducting field research on the range of stews we uncovered as we crisis-crossed the South. We began by traveling across Kentucky to perform field research on Burgoo—a stew Jay has discovered that we had least knowledge about. Along the way we would stop and I would spontaneously walk up to folks with camera rolling, asking what they knew about Burgoo. This provided a great accumulation of information and leads to various “experts” and folks called “Burgoo Kings,” along with stories shared with us that heightened our appreciation of just how beloved this stew was among a wide range of Kentuckians. We picked up on the lore that surrounded the stew. And in the course of our planning we managed to attract noted Southern food writer, John Egerton to our project. It turned out that he grew up in Kentucky eating Burgoo, and he had expert knowledge about our least-known region in western Kentucky. There Burgoo was legendary and deeply rooted in the culture through the competitions each spring and summer by the Catholic Parishes. They had their own Burgoo-masters and crews and stews, each with their special ingredients. But the use exclusively of mutton as the main meat in their stews is what distinguished this cooking of Western Kentucky Burgoo. We learned from a cultural geography professor who taught at Western Kentucky University and lived in the mutton-based Burgoo “hub” of Owensboro (and whom we later used as a commentator in our Southern Stews film) that it was the German settlers migrating into the region across the Ohio River who introduced mutton to the huge black iron pots and instituted this as the meat-base of Burgoo. Back east in the middle of Kentucky an entirely different set of settlers from very different cultural origins were busy throwing any meat they hunted into the Burgoo pot and cooking it down. These men would cook their version of Burgoo as fundraisers for their Protestant churches, be they Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian.

From a spontaneous conversation at a gas station we learned that the distillery in Frankfort named Buffalo Trace had a Burgoo shed made by Colonel Blanton, the proprietor, for cooking Burgoo for special occasions, for distinguished visitors, and for the employees at the distillery. We located it and shot foundational footage that could serve as the basis for a more comprehensive film on Burgoo later on. For we planned to open our other Southern Stews documentary at the site of a Catholic Parish Burgoo-stew cooking to introduce the subject of the documentary but would quickly move from there to the many other locations where “sister” stews were being cooked across the South. Two years after completing “Southern Stews,” I would return to Kentucky to produce a documentary entirely about Kentucky Burgoo, building on the earlier footage collected for Southern Stews.

I returned to Kentucky in 2004 with the new folklorist with McKissick Museum, Saddler Taylor. Together we shot a kind of “roady” film with two folklorists on the road driving through Kentucky in search of the story behind Burgoo, stopping along the way at a number of pre-planned stops, mixed in with stops shooting interviews with whomever we ran across. The plan was to sample the knowledge of Burgoo as we entered Kentucky at its border with Tennessee, and follow the course we had pre-planned based on prior knowledge and field research. An amusing stop at the original home of Kentucky Fried Chicken began our run, followed by these stops as we crossed Kentucky: the Keeneland Raceway in Lexington, where the owner gave us a personal tour that included a sampling of the famous Keeneland Burgoo, and we documented the racehorse named Burgoo who won the Kentucky Derby decades ago; the McDowell County Burgoo Festival, where we documented the contribution to the popularity of Burgoo in this region established by Burgoo King Hollie Warford, visiting with his family members on the family farm where they continue his tradition; the Kentucky Arts Commission’s annual Folklife Festival in Frankfort, where we met the Burgoo-cooking team demonstrating the traditional cooking of Burgoo for visitors, especially school children, and met the wife of the Burgoo King, who showed us artifacts in her home proving the impact her husband had on the spread and popularity of Burgoo in the state Capitol of Frankfort and on future Burgoo-masters who apprenticed with him. At the Folklife Festival we met up with Southern food writer John Egerton, who led us into Western Kentucky and shared his first-hand knowledge of the difference between the Burgoo in central Kentucky and the mutton-based Burgoo cooked in the Owensboro region out west—taking us to the largest of the Burgoo competitions between Catholic Parishes. We returned to Lexington, where we documented a much-heralded Burgoo cooked at the famous KatManDoo restaurant by a Burgoo chef of great renown.

To conclude the shoot, we then followed up on a lead we discovered several years earlier during the production of Southern Stews. We had heard that in the town of Webster Springs there was an annual “Bergoo” Festival, named after the small lumbering town of Bergoo located on Bergoo creek that feeds into the legendary Elk River. We drove across the Kentucky/West Virginia state line and into the town of Webster Springs, capturing the story of the origin of the name for the festival. Tradition tied it back to a hunting party in the 1800’s who traveled from Kentucky and shot so much game along the creek feeding into the Elk that they ended up sharing their stew with the timbering families living along the creek. The stew was called “Burgoo” by the Kentuckians, but the locals spelled it “Bergoo.” This feast became legendary. The locals named the creek where the Kentuckians had encamped Bergoo Creek and gave the name Bergoo to the little town where they had a store and a church. When the town of Webster Springs decided it needed a festival, the people chose to build it off of the Bergoo legend and the Bergoo stew. Every year cooks from all over the mountains come to the Bergoo Festival and compete with their own versions of Bergoo. We ended up with a local character taking us to the site where Bergoo Creek meets the Elk River, where he told us the story of the hunting party and the naming of the creek. The “Burgoo” film enabled me to complete a documentary out of footage first gathered in the making of Southern Stews.