Who invented Brunswick stew?

“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.



Makes 3 1/2 quarts

Brunswick Stew

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.

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8 Responses to Who invented Brunswick stew?

  1. Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
    Domenica Marchetti January 19, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    I loved watching and listening to Rhonda’s story ~ especially her tip that you know that the stew is finished when the paddle stands up straight in the pot. I had not heard of Brunswick stew until I moved to Virginia in the mid-1990s. I had a friend who owned a small barbecue restaurant. She served Brunswick stew that was made with smoked chicken. It was out of this world. I started making it at home using smoked chicken halves from her restaurant. I’m sorry to say she closed her restaurant a few years ago and my Brunswick stew has never been the same since.

  2. Genevieve Woolsey August 1, 2014 at 1:23 am #

    I first ate Brunswick Stew as a young girl on a visit to Williamsburg Va. It was very good. We make it somewhat differently than the recipe listed here. We don’t use potatoes, we use fresh corn not frozen and we add bacon drippings as well as a good helping of hot pepper sauce added to the stew. We also not only discard the bones of the chicken but the skin as well.

  3. Allen December 28, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    I’m tryin’ to figure out why this story is in the the 50 States, Georgia bucket, when my poor ol’ state ain’t mentioned but once, and then only in passin’…

    Seriously, having grown up in middle Georgia in the 60s and early 70s, it was the Georgia version my family made. Not my immediate family, mind; my mama couldn’t cook for nothin’, bless her heart.

    But we’d go to Aunt Alma’s and Uncle Fred’s every fall to meet up with other family and friends from all over GA and SC. Like all my “country relatives, Aunt Alma had a very large kitchen garden, and we’d go up there a couple times each year to help them shuck corn and string the butter peas. There was always good food in the offing, but the fall trip was really just a huge party. Lots of people, lots of pulled pork and chicken, cole slaw, cornbread.

    And of course there was a big ol’ pot of Brunswick stew. Best stuff I ever tasted. Well, best stuff I ever tasted called Brunswick stew! Yum…


  4. Robert moore January 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    If it has no squirrel, it’s not brunswick stew. Therefor, Virginia is disqualified. For a real Brunswick stew, old men go out and shoot squirrels, like they do in North Carolina, the home of Brunswick stew.

    • Jim November 12, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      LOL. When you get so you need thick glasses and have to use a shotgun instead of a 22, chicken saves picking the lead out of the meat! Grouse, quail and dove are good too. But, you make a good point! Even VA acknowledges it was “first” made with squirrel.

      Although VA claims to be the “home” of the stew, their were lots of tribes in the NC-VA border that had no doubt been cooking this a long time. I’d call the origin Southern Native/Colonial American. I’m sure it was widespread from the southern Appalachians to the coast from VA to GA. But the rivalry is fun!

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