“Brunswick stew,” humorist Roy Blount Jr. reportedly quipped, “is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.”
The result is a long-cooked, one-pot spicy stew that is prepared in cast-iron cauldrons at volunteer fire department fundraisers, political rallies, church suppers and family reunions throughout the South. Recipes make servings for 600, although family-sized instructions also are available. It’s cooked for hours until the paddle stands up in the stew.
Historically, there has been lack of consensus about the provenance of the recipe, with both Brunswick County, Va., and Brunswick, Ga., claiming its invention. Brunswick County, N.C., is not as vocal but also has a story.
Virginia’s assertion seems to be the oldest and best documented. The story is that in 1828, while Dr. Creed Hoskins and friends were hunting in Brunswick County, his African-American camp cook, Jimmy Matthews, went hunting for squirrels for stew. As the historical marker in the county reads, “Matthews simmered them with butter, onions, stale bread and seasoning, thus creating the dish known as Brunswick stew.” Later, chicken (and sometimes rabbit) replaced squirrel, and vegetables were added. In Georgia, pork can be the main meat.
In his book “Fading Feast” about disappearing regional foods, Raymond Sokolov calls Brunswick stew “the most famous dish to emerge from the campfires and cabins of pioneer America.” It probably goes back even farther than that. “It seems safe to say that Indians were making stews with wild game long before any Europeans arrived,” food writer John Egerton writes in “Southern Food.”
Each year on the second Saturday of October, stew masters in Virginia participate in the Brunswick stew cookoff where up to 15,000 people are served. Because it’s a friendly rivalry, stew masters from Brunswick, Ga., are invited. In 1988, the Virginia General Assembly proclaimed Brunswick County the birthplace of the “gastronomic miracle” called Brunswick stew – “despite the attempts of pretenders from other states.”
A later resolution named the fourth Wednesday in January Brunswick Stew Day at the state capitol in Richmond. So Wednesday, Jan. 23, a contingent from Brunswick County will go to Richmond and make 140 gallons of stew for the governor and General Assembly. It will not include squirrel.
The original (1828) Brunswick stew was made with squirrel. Most stew masters today substitute chicken, rabbit or pork. The stew often is produced in large batches for church functions, fundraisers, family reunions and political rallies. This is an adaptation of a family-sized recipe from the Brunswick County Tourism Office. Brunswick stew often is served with cornbread.
- 1 whole chicken (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), split
- 2 stalks celery, cut in halves or thirds
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered, plus 1 cup chopped
- 2 10-ounce packages frozen baby lima beans
- 3 10-ounce packages frozen whole kernel corn
- 5 cups water
- 2 28-ounce cans whole or diced tomatoes, undrained
- 3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper
- 10 Saltine crackers
In a large pot, combine chicken, celery, onion and 5 cups water (or to cover). Bring to boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer 1 hour.
Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Strain broth. Discard solids and return broth to the pot. Let cool.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones and discard bones. Add chicken and remaining ingredients (except crackers) to the pot. Simmer, uncovered, for 4 1/2 hours or until stew is thickened and vegetables are very tender. Add water if it becomes too thick. Stir often.
Crumble crackers and add to pot. Cook 15 minutes more.
*Some cooks prefer to add whole peeled potatoes, then mash them and return them to the stew. They say the stew freezes better than with diced potatoes that get soggy.