Have you ever heard of something called ‘burgoo’?
Nowadays the word ‘burgoo’ refers to a hearty, spicy stew, typically served in the American South with cornbread or muffins. However, in the 18th century, ‘burgoo’ referred to a type of oatmeal porridge eaten by British sailors!
I first learned about ‘burgoo’ in this video I stumbled across from one of my favorite YouTube channels: Townsends. For those who don’t know, this is a brilliant (and weirdly relaxing!) educational channel featuring a re-enactor Jon Townsend who cooks 18th century recipes. You might remember Townsends if you read my post about making ‘Flip’ from earlier this year!
One of the things that I love most about the channel is how excited Townsend and his team get about 18th century primary sources. He frequently reads from letters and diaries of the time, and uses them as a little glimpse into the culinary past. In this video – ‘Sailor Rations in the 18th Century – Burgoo’, he reads aloud from Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens. Spavens reflects on sailor’s rations (most of which consisted of beer, bread, beef…no fresh veggies and fruits, of course! No wonder they got scurvy from lack of Vitamin C!). Anyways, Spavens writes:
On Wednesdays we get burgoo boiled for breakfast and a pint of peas to make soup for dinner. On Mondays, no peas but burgoo for dinner.
So what was burgoo exactly? It’s majorly simple. It’s ground oatmeal boiled in water. Sometimes you got salted beef fat to go with it, or you might get molasses. Molasses, or black treacle (for British readers!) is a dark, sweet, viscous goo (seems like I’m using the word ‘goo’ a lot in this post!) which comes from refining sugarcane. On a ship, they’d be making it in giant vats, as Townsend explains. In his making of burgoo, he uses a ratio of 3:1 oatmeal to water.
After we watched this video, my partner (who eats porridge most days for breakfast) wanted to try his hand at making a ‘burgoo’, so we made it for breakfast, using the same simple method that Townsend did – adding hot water to oats. We put some molasses in too. Here’s the result, it’s not beautiful – but oatmeal isn’t a very photogenic food!
It was, predictably, a little bland.
We even added nutmeg (which Townsend suggests that officers might have had…but I’m a bit more wary of that. I don’t think that officers would have necessarily been eating burgoo at all, they might have had something nicer! And, even if they did have burgoo, they probably wouldn’t be grating nutmeg on it, unless they were a huge nutmeg lover and brought their own personal nutmeg stash with them to sea. Which, I guess, is possible. Nutmeg is delicious.) But even with nutmeg, it was bland.
In the end, I did a very un-period appropriate thing and cut up some banana to add to it, which sailor’s would definitely not have had! But I wanted to have a nice breakfast and the banana definitely was a game changer.
So that’s it! Burgoo is simple and warming and cheap (then and now). And it was fun to spice up breakfast with a bit of an 18th century inspired experiment. (We don’t really leave the house much these days, so gotta get those moments of entertainment where you can!)
What do you think of burgoo? Have you heard the word before? Does it seem like something you’d enjoy? Also, what breakfasts have you been enjoying recently in general? Granola with raisins and almonds is my go-to, but we’re going to try burgoo another time soon, possibly with more spices added to it!
PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Royal Charlotte – Indiaman’ by Robert Dodd, created between 1764-1785, and accessed via Wikimedia
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!