The Secret Ingredient in Arenzville's Burgoo

Sep 5, 2014

Burgoo needs to simmer for at least 12 hours, though Soup Master Tony Thomas says it's like chili -- "the longer it cooks, the better it gets."
Credit Amanda Vinicky

There's a farm town about 50 miles to the west of Springfield, in between Jacksonville and Beardstown, called Arenzville. Only about 400 people live there. It's the sort of place where old men gather at the only restaurant in town every Saturday morning for coffee. The sort of place where many of the last names carved into the tombstones at the local cemetery are the same as the last names a teacher is reading off of the class list when she takes attendance at school each morning.

It's also the self-proclaimed home of the "World's Best Burgoo." Burgoo is always a big deal in Arenzville, but especially this year -- when the town is celebrating its 175th anniversary. The festivities begin today and go through Saturday night. Amanda Vinicky went to last year's event.

Burgoo? Ever heard of it?

Yeah. Didn't think so -- maybe if you're from central or southern Illinois, or Kentucky, where the burgoo tradition lives. But if not. Well, it's a strange word, with a couple of definitions.

Let me get some help to explain.

Courtney Privia describes her responsibilities as Junior Miss Arenzville Burgoo like this: "Well, you represent your town and you like sponsor people to, oh come to burgoo. And show you people how you should act at burgoo."
Credit Amanda Vinicky

  "Burgoo is just a little town get together, I would say. Because they all come, and enjoy the food and the activities," says 12-year-old Courtney Privia, whose reign as the 2013 Junior Miss Arenzville Burgoo is coming to an end.

But it's also a food. "Yeah, there's a soup," she says (Courtney says she likes burgoo, though I caught her snacking on a corndog).

Royalty, of course, comes with responsibilities, that kept Courtney busy at  last year's event.

"Well, I had to be at the talent show, the tractor pull, the frog and turtle race, and the little kid games, and then ..."

The list goes on. There's a 5k race, carnival rides, bingo, entertainment at night --- Arenzville’ s brought in some decent musicians over the years -- and a craft show. You get the picture. A burgoo is big festival, in a bitty town.

But that's not quite it, either. That's too simple. It's also a tradition, and a homecoming. Troy Scoggins and Donna Large grab a pre-burgoo beer at a bar off of Arenzville's square. They come for the burgoo every year, even though their town -- Glasgow, about an hour south, has its own. 

"Two total different burgoos," Donna says."Now, I will not eat the Glasgow burgoo, but I'll eat Arenzville's, and I come here and get it every year. Now he's the total opposite. He won't eat here but he'll eat the Glasgow burgoo."

Okay, so let's further define burgoo - the soup. Nobody's sure when Arenzville had its first burgoo, but it's been going on for more than 100 years.

Wild game and backyard garden-grown vegetables are no longer used, but otherwise the ingredients are the same as they've been for years. Special care is taken to ensure volunteers chop up the vegetables just-so; and the meat is custom-ordered to come in two-by-two cubes.

It's all lorded over by a burgoo master Tony Thomas. He wears a red apron and a baseball cap -- a gift -- which says "Soup Man." 

Tony Thomson has helped to make Arenzville's burgoo for about 35 years; he's been the burgoo master since 1998. He says the soup gets a "marbley" look to it when it's just right, "you don't want it too thick or too thin."
Credit Amanda Vinicky

You don't just get to be Soup Man; Tony's been the head soup-maker since 1998, when the previous one passed away; before that he was on the soup committee; heck, he was helping out in grade school, when he "couldn't stand the stuff." He likes it now though. Good thing, because as the Soup Man, it's Tony, and Tony only, who holds onto Arenzville's burgoo recipe. A lot of fuss is made what's in it -- and if there's a special ingredient.

"Now I'll have to shoot you after you look at this, now keep that in mind," he tells me before reading the list.

"We start out with 40 -- this is one kettle --- 40 pounds of beef, 12 pounds of chicken, 12 pounds of carrots, ten pounds of onions, 8 pounds of celery, 30 pounds of carrots, 50 pounds of potatoes, and nine gallons of tomatoes (diced tomatoes), 3 gallons of corn, salt and pepper, and paprika. But I'm not telling you the quantities of the last!"

Take this with a grain or however much salt, pepper and paprika: this is just my opinion, what makes the burgoo special isn't the ingredients.

It's the immense operation that goes into making it.

Arenzville has 15 giant, black kettles, high as my hips, where burgoo cooks for a minimum of 12 hours.

That used to involve hand-stirring the burgoo, using long, wooden poles with a paddle attached. In some communities that's still how it's done.

It takes a lot of volunteers to make the burgoo; many of the soup's fans bring in buckets to the festival, so they can freeze some burgoo and eat it all year long.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

But not in Arenzville. One of Arenzville's resident electricians had a bright idea some years back. He made electric-stirrers to mix the burgoo: Imagine a boat engine, slowly whirling in a sea of reddish brown soup.

Tony says people were nervous at first that it would change the consistency, or ruin the taste.

It doesn't appear to be a problem - volunteers ladle out thousands of gallons; giant funnels are used to pour it into gallon containers that people take home and freeze. It's tasty soup.

But don’t' take my word for it.

Robert Arenz is a descendant of Fritz Arenz, Arenzville's namesake; the village celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2014 and the Arenz family is scheduled to have a reunion. It is believed there are no Arenz relations living in Arenzville now.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

  How about taking it from Robert Arenz. Yep. Arenz.

As in the great, great grandson of Francis Arenz, who founded the town 175 years ago. Robert's from near St. Louis. Just a couple hours' drive. But he'd never been to Arenzville before, and he'd never before tried burgoo, though says he wondered many times what it tasted like.

At age 85, he finally made the trip. Robert takes a spoonful. And the verdict?

"If I were not an Arenz, I'd still come for it ... it was really good," he says.

Good enough that a larger Arenz family reunion is planned for this year's burgoo.

After all, burgoo isn't just a soup. It's also a homecoming.

Arenzville's burgoo - a stew - is a summer tradition, but in recent years the town's firefighters have organized a mini version of the event, where the soup is for sale, in January.