There's Never a Recipe for Burgoo

I've written about Burgoo before. But not here. A more unappetizing pot of slop is pretty hard to imagine, but it does have its use and purpose.

If you look up recipes for Burgoo, you find that it is a precise mixture of three meats that are all dissimilar, typically including fowl, large red meat, and small game (the gamier the better, apparently!). It also includes specific vegetables, and suggests a wide variety is optimal. They seem to forget grains, but DON'T forget grains... they are an important ingredient!

What they don't say is this:

Burgoo is stone soup, without the stone. It is all the leftovers, none of which are enough to form a meal around, and all of which conflict with one another.  It is the last of the food in the spring, the first of the weeds, and never enough to make anything, always unbalanced, and always eaten with visions of fresh food in mind.

You throw it in the pot, and cook it into submission - with the hope that if you cook it long enough, nobody will know what kind of stew it was supposed to be to begin with. Hopefully the ingredients will stop fighting by then. And it is always stew... not soup by then because everything cooks to mush.

But if you are in a survival situation, you may some day need to make Burgoo. The closest I've come is in considering adding a dab of leftover turkey rice soup to a smidgen of Aoudad stew. I've never had to cook it into submission.

I am assured that knowing you can cook it to merge the flavors may be an asset in my lifetime.


Long Ago, a Distant Relative Discovered the Value of Burgoo

"You need to learn how to make Burgoo." his mother said. She was putting things into a pot. Times were hard, they were down to the last, and nobody was going shopping. It was spring, and that was bad enough, since they were already measuring out the last and hoping it would be enough until the garden came in. Their home had been robbed of food the night before, and there was very little left.

She said, "The secret isn't in what you put IN, it is in the cooking.".

He watched, and helped, as she put in a jar of "molasses beans", a scrap of leftover chicken, a bit of tunafish with the mayonnaise, two slices of cut up ham, three wrinkled and sprouting potatoes ("They really should not be in here, for proper Burgoo." she joked.), a turnip, two beets, a quarter of a head of wilting cabbage and a small jar of spinach nobody wanted to eat for the last six years since it had been canned, and a little leftover applesauce that was edgy enough that nobody wanted to eat it, but it would be fine if it were cooked hot for a bit.

With nine people to feed, she knew it would not be enough. Two other family members brought in a fine parsnip, a chicken drumstick, a half pint jar of leftover peas, a cup of dry pearled barley (a thing to celebrate!), a piece and a half of dryish cornbread to crumble in - plus a pint jar of sugared sweet potatoes, and JUST enough flour to make nine small drop biscuits (she had a little bacon fat, some baking soda and vinegar, but no milk so water had to do). She passed up the jar of sweet potatoes - no matter how bad things got, she just could not eat those. That jar had been making the rounds of charitable food drives for about 15 years, and she wasn't about to break that tradition. She was pretty sure that it would make its way back to her at least another two or three times before someone opened it, tossed the sweet potatoes, and re-used the jar, since she'd had it returned to her cupboard four times already. She tossed a little bacon fat into the pot also, just to be sure it had enough fat.

She turned and said, "I really need a squirrel.". The pot was about half full, and a good Burgoo really does have to be pretty dense, you don't just top it off with water and call it enough!

His father said, "I'll go see what I can get." and headed out with the small rifle.

The young man went out to check the garden. Early spring, not much up, and last year's storage pretty well gone. You had to be careful. If you rob the early crops, you don't have enough for the year.

The garden had already been robbed. But just the lettuces and some of the cabbages. Nobody wanted the spinach, even fresh, and everything else wasn't edible as-is.

He skipped the new crops, and dug where last year's carrots had been. Nothing. The parsnip patch gave up one small and shriveled parsnip, and he struck gold in a weedy patch by the onions... Two large green onions, an inch around at the base, and a full 2 1/2 feet tall. You can eat ANYTHING in stew if you have onions! He found lamb's quarter, and Mom said to save that for tomorrow, along with the chickweed and plantain (that's just more spinach, you know!).

His father came back with a groundhog. We do not know if it saw its shadow or not. But Mom cooked it up in the pressure cooker, because groundhog needs a good long cook, and she didn't have time for that, and the cook time for Burgoo. Boned out, the groundhog and the broth went into the stew pot.

"You have to cook it into stew. You can't THICKEN it into stew, you have to just cook it down, till everything is falling apart, and the flavors blend." his mom said. "That's the secret to Burgoo. No matter what you put into the pot, if it is edible, you can eat it, and not mind, if you cook it good and long."

It wasn't good, he said. But it was ok. And it was filling. You didn't go away hungry. One brother complained, so did his wife. All the younger kids just ate, and nobody said a thing. It was just dinner.

The Mom said, "It was just STEW." Not any KIND of stew, just STEW.

And that is how Burgoo came to be, and why it survived, and then died out as a meal. We don't know how to survive a thin spring season anymore, and that is when Burgoo was traditionally resorted to. Not a meal you PLAN, or use a recipe FOR, but just something you fall back on because you HAVE to.




The war was raging, and his troops were nearly starving. Supplies were short, and the Quartermaster was handing out one can of K rations per man, per day. This is an 8 oz can of SOMETHING. You didn't get to choose what you got, you just got SOMETHING.

He didn't have many men under his command, and they were all pretty grumbly about the lack of food. About the third day of restrictions he opened a can of SOMETHING. Now usually, you could tell what you got. It might be vegetables, it might be fruit, or even stew or a can of ham, beef, chicken, pork, or turkey, or even tuna if you lucked out. If you were not so lucky, you'd end up with an experimental meal that didn't quite work out, or something they called Bread. If you were REALLY unlucky, the can you got would be puffed, and the contents inedible or deadly - this was a regular occurrence, and you did NOT get a replacement.

This can of SOMETHING wasn't one of those. It took a while to figure out what it was. The label said "Lasagna", but it clearly was not that! There were three slabs of something solid which may have been meant to be pasta. There was a pinkish orange sauce, and a marblish sized lump of something unidentifiable which was probably meant to be meat. Our officer shook his head, and the man next to him said, "What are you gonna do with something like that?".

The man next to him then said, "I have oranges. Just oranges." There were always oranges. No matter how bad things got, for some reason there were always mandarin oranges. And mushrooms. You just can't live on 1 can of mandarin oranges or 1 can of mushrooms, for 24 hours!

And then he remembered Burgoo.

"Bring it all in, men!" he called.

Good men, they did.

He cut up the "lasagna", and tossed it into his cookpot.

He looked at the oranges, and handed them out, one to a man. One extra to the man whose can it had been.

Next, green beans. Then turkey. Then mushrooms. Two more cans of meat, three more cans of vegetables, one of "bread", And one can of questionable, but not totally inedible potatoes and gravy.

Every man then added 1 can of water.

Cooked it for about half an hour, and served it up. One and a half cans of stew per man.

Pretty good deal, his men thought. Other troops watched, would not share with one another this way. But his would. Eventually a few other troops buckled down for it. It isn't like it was a new idea, it was not. It is just that most would snitch so much before putting it in the pot, that they could not serve up anything fair at all. A few did manage, by requiring full cans from anyone who wanted to contribute.

Thing is, if you share, you get a miracle. From Burgoo. Or stone Soup. Or Smorgasbord, or Potluck, whatever you want to call it.

One can a day, and you never have enough. Your body has one thing to work with, so it works crooked every day.

One bit of this and that and something from all the food groups (except they never had dairy), and you get sufficient variety of nutrients to function, even if you are losing due to slow starvation. You can just hold out longer.

Sometimes, you need to know how to make Burgoo.


About K Rations

These were used from WW1 through the Korean and barely into the Vietnam Wars.

They began as open kettled foods, and as a result, the shelf-life was not very long. About every third can was puffed, and ranged from barely edible, to outright deadly. They progressed to waterbathed, but this was not much better for low acid foods, and some foods that have a short shelf life due to grain or dairy content.

My father said that if it smelled bad, you could heat it really well and it would be edible but not very tasty. If it LOOKED bad, you just tossed it, there was no reviving it.

C rations were pressure canned, and combined with other items into a kit which usually contained a spoon, a napkin, a match, a packet of coffee, 1 cigarette, 1 piece of gum, 1 piece of chocolate, 1 - 12 oz can of food (generally a meal), 1 - 8 oz can of fruit, 1 - 8 oz can of crackers (later a plastic package of crackers), 1 - 8 oz can of cheese spread or deviled ham. There were variations on this. This was supposed to be 1 day's worth of food for a soldier who was engaging in intense physical activity. When things were "good" they got 2 of these. When they were not, they didn't even get this. The fortunes of war brought hardship both from the enemy, and from theft within their own ranks, and hunger was a common visitor, and sometimes a permanent resident.

During the second world war, most places in combat had just K rations. Some packed fresh, some leftover from some forgotten time ago.


Open kettled foods that are high acid, and either high sugar or salt, such as pickles, jam, juice, and even applesauce, will store well about 95% of the time, for 2 years or better. So, while waterbathing is BETTER, those are fairly safe to can this way, though the seal is a little lighter, and they don't seal well at high altitude, and if you transport them to high altitude from low altitude, the seal may break.

Open kettle means they are heated to boiling, and put into jars and lidded immediately, with no further processing.

Foods which normally require water bath canning may or may not hold when open kettled. The spoilage rate is about 50% within 6 months. About half of that can be compensated for by cooking the food after opening it, though flavor and texture may be changed.

Foods which normally require pressure canning have a very high failure rate if open kettled, and even if they DO maintain a seal, they may spoil in a way which can be compensated for by heating well before consumption, or they may be so gross you can't even try that. Botulism is not the only risk, we have Ptomaine (affects pork and chicken principally), Perfringens, and a few others that are no longer well known.

Perfringens has several varieties, and can affect dairy foods, meats, vegetables, and grains. It is generally NOT deadly, but will change the flavor, smell, texture, color, etc. Cooking with high heat renders the food "safe" to eat, but not necessarily tasty. This is also true of Botulism (which may affect any low acid food), except that it IS generally deadly when not heat treated. High heat will still render the food safe to eat.

About half the food received as K rations was contaminated with some form of food poisoning, which troops compensated for by either heat treating, or discarding. About 10-30% had to be discarded when things got really bad.

And this is how developed nations fed their troops during earlier wars.

Of course, MREs are not much better. The rate of pathogenic food poisoning is lower, but the rates of chemical food poisoning are 100%.

NOTE: Get real, folks, this is not advice on how to can food. This is HISTORIC information on what was done, and how the troops survived. Besides, it is scientific fact... So go argue with someone else about your food preservation paranoia.

In other words, this is a legal disclaimer. Food poisoning happens, use your brain, and follow the rules.

As to the historic facts, this is according to what was recounted to me by people who lived it.


The information on this site is presented for informational purposes only, and consists of the opinions and experiences of the site authors. It is not to be construed as medical advice or to be used to diagnose or treat any illness. Seek the assistance of a medical professional in implementing any nutritional changes with the goal of treating any medical condition. The historical and nutritional information presented here can be verified by a simple web search.

I do what I do because I understand the science behind it, and I've researched worldwide sources to verify the safety of my practices to my own satisfaction. Please do your own research, and proceed AT YOUR OWN RISK.



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