A LARGE KETTLE OF SIMMERING BERGU OVER HOT COALS
A RECOLLECTION OF THE PAST
In the fall, when a Bob White rested on the top rail of a fence singing his melodious tune, while his mate was hidden away amidst the weed-covered fields, and the squirrels made many furtive excursions up a hickory nut tree, it was then the early Southern pioneers turned their thoughts to the enjoyment of a social gathering with a barbeque or bergu—the latter a squirrel stew or soup—as its principal feature. This tradition continued well after the Civil War.
Accordingly, an appointed day was decided upon, the neighbors notified, and all made ready to enjoy and contribute to what was called a “bergu” or “burgoo.” It was good in any Southern state you got it and however you might spell it. Bergu was always the order of the day when vegetables were available. As was customary in Tennessee at a bergu gathering, “sippin’” of a good drink from a jug of Tennessee’s favorite beverage, white lighting—the backwoods elixir of life—was looked forward to.
How bergu got its queer name came from Appalachian dialect when someone mistook bergu or burgoo for bird stew. Nevertheless, after time, everyone in the Southland knew what it was and someone who didn’t know what it was was suspected of being a “damn Yankee.”
This tradition began with hunters in Virginia, mainly with venison. But as it made its way to Tennessee and Mississippi well before the Civil War, the main ingredient became squirrel meat, but most any game animal or bird would do, even coons or doves or blackbirds. It was said, “You can toss in almost anything that ever walked or flew,” but the old Tennesseans said it was not bergu unless it consisted of squirrel meat. It was also said that “on the eighth day God made bergu.” Whatever, to those feasting on bergu, they considered it “nectar and ambrosia.”
No two pots of bergu were the same, so one might encounter a range of mild to spicy flavors. The real challenge, however, was how it was made, which was historically in large batches in large iron kettles over coals. Many were saltpeter kettles used by the locals in the making of black gunpowder for their weapons.
The social gathering place was nearly always some shady grove surrounding a babbling spring or artesian well, and by 10:00 hundreds of hunters had been out since sunrise with rifle or small-bore shotgun, and then had returned well laden with their feathery-tailed game—sometimes as many as five or six hundred.
Immense black kettles were kept on hand in some secluded spot, ready for such occasions, which were filled with pure water from the well or spring. A ditch was dug, about eighteen inches deep and just wide enough for the kettle to fit over burning coals snugly, no flames allowed. If a small number was expected, twenty-gallon kettles were placed on top of the coal, the number of kettles depending on the size of the social gathering.
Into the kettles were put the dressed squirrels, together with every vegetable that could be found, particularly tomatoes, okra, and onions while a few slices of bacon, salt, and red pepper were added for seasoning. However, this was not all of the seasoning and we will never know entirely what seasoning was used because it was carefully and zealously guarded by each “bergumaster,”—a local authority on matters of gastronomy and often labeled the “grand old chef of the slow burning pots.”
The meat was placed into the kettle about ten o’clock the morning before the bergu was to be served and cooked until ten o’clock that night. During this time, the fresh vegetables were brought in. At ten, the meat was taken out and strained with huge strainer-dippers, leaving the rich liquid to receive the finely chopped vegetables.
The vegetables, except the corn, was stewed gently throughout the night. All of this was under the supervision of experienced bergumaster, who knew how to make the best stew or soup. When all was in the kettle, the slow boiling mixture was stirred constantly with long hickory sticks or paddles. On many occasions, blacks often assisted in the cooking. It was ready to serve once the meat had shredded.
While waiting for the soup or stew, some engaged in pistol or rifle contests; others, younger, or, perhaps, more energetic, were laying up sore joints for the morrow by jumping, running races, or dancing to juice harps and banjos. Still others enjoyed a quiet game of checkers, marbles, or horseshoes, while the young ones played mumbley peg. Many just reclined under the shade and talked of crops, guns, dogs, and horses. Nevertheless, all kept an eye upon the kettles where the cooking went steadily on under the direction of the bergumaster.
About four hours before serving time the next day, the meat was deboned, while volunteers scraped corn from the cob. Then the two were added to the mixture. By this time, the mixture was sending off tempting odors to torment everyone.
If a thicker soup was wanted, then the soup was allowed to simmer until the consistency of chowder was reached, some would say 30 hours, the favor improving the more it “ages.” If a stew was desired, once the mixture had reached the point where it could be eaten as a soup, more scraped corn was added to thicken it, and a short time afterward was ready to be eaten.
It must be remembered that bergu was a very temperamental dish. The test by which to determine whether the stew was done, which must be stirred constantly to prevent scorching, was to see if all the ingredients had become totally unrecognizable, for not until then was the stew said to be fit for consumption. It had to strike the bergumaster as peppery hot without it being too hot, as being rich but not greasy, and how perfectly flavored it tasted. To attain the right flavor took years of long experimentation by the bergumaster. One of bergu’s vital characteristics was the absence of fat or grease. Opossum, pork, and other greasy meats were never used.
The unusual thickness of the kettle would keep the bergu steaming hot for eight hours. But if it ever got cold, there was no use to reheat it as it never tasted the same.
Turnips, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, slaw, and delicate silver-skinned onions furnish the side dishes while loaves of white bread and pans of cornbread flanked the plates. Delicious watermelons, with thin rind and bright red meat, together with juicy peaches and purple figs, furnished the dessert, and the whole made a feast that no one who had once consumed could ever forget.
It has often been said that bergu was more a concept than a recipe, and the stew was often described as “a six-course dinner all boiled in one.” Many experiments had been made in adding other vegetables, but it was generally believed that okra, onions, tomatoes, and corn were all that were needed, while some used other vegetables, especially cabbage, but “purists” thought they detracted from its merits and believed it added nothing to its flavor. Other meats were also used, at times, such as beef, bear, venison, chicken, turtles, rabbits, waterfowl, and wild pigeons.
Sometimes, barbequed pork might be offered alongside the bergu. If so, the preferred woods used for whole carcasses barbequing were either sugar maple or hickory.
Bergu, barbeque, and good fried hot chittlins were three features of early antebellum life and even later. It was said that one could smell the “perfume” of cooking bergu fifty miles away.
Since my younger days, when I was a lad, I have never eaten anything with greater relish than a plate of bergu cooked and eaten al fresco in the society of the social and warm-hearted Mid-South natives. Moreover, I am remorseful that I have not for many years partaken of bergu, much to the sadness of my palate.
It is to be regretted that Bergu is almost a thing of the past—a recollection of other days.