Brunswick Stew: A Bowl of History
This Wednesday, January 23, has been proclaimed Brunswick Stew Day in my home state of Virginia. A contingent of cooks from Brunswick County in southeastern Virginia will travel to the state capital and prepare 140 gallons of stew for the governor and General Assembly.
Brunswick stew is a slow-cooked, one-pot tomato-based stew, consisting of meats, usually chicken, or in more traditional preparations, rabbit or squirrel. Its ingredients also include many vegetables and legumes, such as lima beans, corn, tomatoes, and okra. Think of it almost as a hearty chicken chili. The stew is often made in huge batches in a cast-iron pot, and is said to be ready when it’s so thick that the paddle stands up in the middle.
Like many traditional dishes, the origins of Brunswick stew are disputed. Brunswick County, Georgia, claims this southern favorite was first cooked there in 1898. One of its welcome centers on I-95 displays what is said to be the original stew pot, bronzed and paired with a commemorative plaque. Georgian Brunswick stew tends to favor pork or beef, as parts of the pig, such as the hog’s head, given to antebellum slaves may have given rise to the dish. Brunswick County, North Carolina also claims to be the stew’s birthplace, and its preparation includes potatoes, which thickens the stew even more. Some think the stew came from the original Brunswick, Braunschweig, Germany, as it was said to have been a favorite of Queen Victoria. It could also have started with Native Americans, who often stewed wild game for long periods until the meat was tender.
But Brunswick County, Virginia, is probably the best documented account, and definitely the most proudly boasted. The story goes that in 1828 (70 years before the Georgia claim), Dr. Creed Hoskins, who would later become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and his friends were hunting on the banks of the Nottoway River. Hoskins’s camp cook “Uncle” 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.” Legend has it the hunters were reluctant to try the mixture, but their hesitance quickly turned to demands for second and third helpings of the warm, thick squirrel stew.
Some cooks even today say it’s not Brunswick stew unless there is squirrel in it, though the pot presented next Wednesday to the General Assembly won’t have any.
Each year, the friendly rivalry between Virginia and Georgia stews is celebrated in an annual cook-off. The winner is named a Brunswick County Stewmaster, and sales of the various stews benefit charities chosen by the Stewmasters.
Since it’s best in big batches, Brunswick stew is the perfect Super Bowl food and can be prepared a day or two in advance. To get a taste, try some of these noteworthy BBQ joints:
Old Hickory House Restaurant, Charlotte, NC
Harold’s Barbecue, Atlanta, GA
Fox Bros Bar-B-Q, Atlanta, GA
Southern Soul Barbeque, Saint Simons Island, GA
Chowning’s Tavern, Williamsburg, VA
The Cinnamon Cafe, Lawrenceville, VA (They also ship along the East Coast!)