Stewing it up in Illinois

Imagine hundreds of volunteers gathered around wood fires, stirring into the night over pots and pots full of meats, veggies and spices.

You may have heard of burgoo before, but if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Burgoo, or chowder as some call it, is a thick stew made with a variety of different meats and vegetables that is brewed for many hours to give it a rich and savory flavor. Each recipe consists of its own variations of ingredients, sometimes beef, chicken, or pork, but some are kept secret for generations all across the state of Illinois.

In LaSalle County, burgoo has made quite a large impact in the small town of Utica, where it has been held every year since 1969. The town’s population is just over 1,000, but some 25,000 to 30,000 people turn out for the event annually. The LaSalle County Burgoo Festival is hosted by the LaSalle County Historical Society on Oct. 7, and is prepared and served in the parking lot of the organization. The society first prepared the meal as a thank you to its volunteers, but now more than 100 community members volunteer during the festival and around 225 gallons of burgoo are made for the event.

The LaSalle County burgoo is overseen by the Burgoo Meister, who holds the secret recipe, and is prepared in four large pots over a wood fire. Volunteers come the night before and take turns stirring the pots until it is ready to be served the next day.

During the festival, the museum and its four buildings will be open to the public, which includes a blacksmith shop, an agricultural exhibit in the barn, and a one-room, 19th century school house. Live music and more than 250 craft vendors will be present to complete the festival.

Farther south, in Allendale, Ill., Roy Hipsher, a Chowder Committee member, says that if you’re looking for chowder, Allendale’s is the “best around.” Hipsher says preparation starts about six weeks before the big event that takes place on the Saturday before Labor Day. Fresh vegetables are peeled, cut and frozen to preserve them for the day of the festival.

On the day of the event, cooking begins at 3 a.m. using 50- to 90-gallon cast iron kettles. In the past, the chowder was prepared over wood fires, while volunteers manually stirred the stew with wooden paddles. However, gas burners and electric stirrers are used to prepare the chowder these days.

More than 100 volunteers from the community and the church gather each year to prepare the chowder and more than 1,000 people are expected to attend.

When the first festival was held in 1920 to raise money for the Cemetery Association for cemetery maintenance, it made and sold around 50 to 60 gallons of chowder. And now, at its 93rd annual festival, it is expected to produce more than 1,100 gallons. The festival is hosted by the Wabash Presbyterian Church. Presently, a portion of the proceeds is donated to the church mission fund in addition to the Cemetery Association.

Sandwiches, fish, pies, cakes, ice cream and other food items are also sold at the festival.

A softball tournament is held each year, as well as volleyball and washers. Plus horseshoe games are played throughout the day.

Chowders and Burgoo Festivals in Illinois:

Franklin Burgoo, July 4, Drive-up service starts at 6 a.m.
Franklin Park in Franklin

Noble Chowder, Aug. 11, Serving around 11 a.m.
Noble Park on Noble Ave.

West Salem Chowder, Aug. 18, Serving at 11 a.m.
On the Village Square in West Salem

Orio Chowder – Allendale, Sept. 1
11188 N. 2300 Boulevard, Allendale

LaSalle County Burgoo Festival, Oct. 7, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
101 E. Canal St., Utica

If you know of a festival that is not listed, feel free to contact us and we will add it to our online list.