The mysteries of Brunswick stew

Mixture has a basic identity, thick in texture and umber in color

Special to The Washington PostJanuary 15, 2014 

When I arrive around 8:30 a.m. on a brilliant blue winter day in the south-central Virginia town of Alberta (population about 300) to suss out the mysteries of Brunswick stew, I find four guys standing around an 85-gallon cast-iron stew pot, steam rising from its contents of chicken and water, the stew’s first stage.

“What time did you start?” I ask.

The crew leader, George Daniel, a mustachioed, white-haired 73-year-old auctioneer in a faded zip-up jumpsuit, takes the opportunity to school me in the long, involved process. “Started yesterday,” he says.

“Yesterday?” I ask, confused.

“Billy here was cuttin’ potatoes and onions.”

That would be Billy Waller, 76, retired from the Virginia Department of Transportation. A solidly built man in a red gimme cap, blue button-down and jeans, Waller is using a long-handled paddle to stir 160 pounds of skinless, boneless chicken thighs in 18 gallons of well water, turning the liquid at the bottom of the pot milky. “We cut a few,” he says dryly.

Daniel and Waller are sort of the Lennon and McCartney of Virginia Brunswick stew. The two have cooked together for so many years, they’ve lost count. They agree that I can say “over 20.” Their team, the Red Oak Stew Crew, has won first place in the Brunswick stew competition at the annual A Taste of Brunswick festival in October so often that they’ve lost count of that number, too.

Their victories have earned them repeated trips to the state capital in Richmond to cook the concoction on the fourth Wednesday in January, a.k.a. Brunswick Stew Day. Virginia’s General Assembly approved the designation in 2002. It followed a 1988 resolution proclaiming Brunswick County “The Original Home of Brunswick Stew,” a rebuke to the town of Brunswick, Ga., whose state legislature has also issued a proclamation claiming the stew was developed there.

Georgians point to a plaque on a 25-gallon stew pot on St. Simons Island, just outside the town of Brunswick, used in 1898, to support their claim. Virginians say the stew was created in 1828 by Jimmy Matthews, a slave who slow-cooked squirrel, bread crumbs, onions, butter and seasonings for the hunting party of his master, Creed Haskins. In “Southern Food,” John Egerton theorizes that the stew was probably being made by American Indians before either of the two states were even colonies.

Whatever the case, the squirrel has long since been replaced with chicken and, especially in Georgia, other meats, most often pork. It has taken on additional vegetables, typically tomatoes, small butter beans and corn, with the Georgians commonly adding peas. Some stew masters still cook over a wood fire to impart a smoky flavor. Most of them, though, use more manageable propane-fueled gas flames. Smoked meats are sometimes added, and the spiciness level, while occasionally fiery, is usually piquant.

I first tasted Brunswick stew in Atlanta in 1988 and have tried numerous versions throughout the South ever since. But there are so many variations that the more I researched the stew, the less I understood it. That’s why I headed to Brunswick County for a closer look.

The differences somehow don’t obscure the basic identity of the stew, which is thick in texture and umber in color. It is often made as part of a community event, as Daniel and Waller are doing on this particular day in Alberta, cooking as a fundraiser for a church’s mission trip to Nicaragua.

Waller takes turns stirring with two younger men: Michael Grimm, 29, Daniel’s son-in-law, and Scott Brandt, 47, a five-year team helper who says he is still apprenticing. The four began cooking at 7:45 a.m.

Around 9:30 a.m., Daniel, using an old metal colander, scoops the 100 pounds of sliced onions from a gigantic cooler and adds them to the pot. He does the same with 100 pounds of steak-fry-cut potatoes, submerged in water that is brownish from seasonings. I ask Daniel about the flavorings in the cooler’s water. “That,” he says with a slight smile, “I can’t tell you.” A stew master must have his secrets.

Enormous clouds of steam billow up from the pot, enshrouding Waller, who, after being spelled by the others, has taken back the paddle. The process of making the stew is not only long but arduous. I know, because I ask to stir the pot. Daniel acquiesces. The others note that it is a high honor to be allowed. I move the paddle around with effort, trying hard to find a rhythm that doesn’t strain my shoulder muscles and keeps my hands away from the pot’s scorching-hot rim, all the while tending to my primary responsibility: keeping the stew from burning on the bottom. After a little while, Waller takes over. He has detected a problem. “Clumping up,” he says. His tone suggests simple observation, not judgment (I think).

Ingredients are added at intervals. Numerous huge cans of butter beans around 10:15, giant cans of crushed tomatoes at 10:35, big cans of two kinds of corn - cream-style and shoe peg - sometime after noon. Throughout the latter stages, Daniel shakes immeasurable quantities of salt, black pepper and cayenne into the pot. Every so often, team members spoon stew into small plastic-foam cups to taste for flavor. More salt is added. More pepper. More cayenne.

Waller places the paddle in the middle of the pot and it doesn’t budge. “The stew is done when the paddle stands up,” Daniel says.

Rumor has it that there is a notch in the bottom of the giant stew pot that the paddle fits into. Daniel is tight-lipped about that. Part of the appeal of Brunswick stew, he understands, is its mystique.

When the stew is finally finished, I try a little bit in a foam cup. It’s coral in hue and velvety in texture, thick with strands of chicken, studded with butter beans, kernels of corn and pieces of undissolved potato. The slow, long, lazy bubbling of tomatoes and chicken and vegetables has created a mild flavor, the cayenne a gentle sting.

Throughout the morning, townsfolk have dropped by to ask when the stew will be ready. They have been smelling it all the way down the block. Daniel and Waller cook community stews twice, sometimes three times a month. Since news of this stewmaking was announced weeks ago (by old-fashioned word of mouth; no social media here), locals and even Richmond residents an hour away have ordered multiple quarts. For days, every ounce of the 85 gallons has been spoken for. In fact, it’s over-sold. Daniel starts calling around to see who might reduce their order.

Around 1:30, people start coming by for their quarts. This one gets six, that one 10, another 22, at $7 per quart. I hadn’t known the etiquette about ordering in advance. I am fearful I won’t get any.

Daniel has already considered that. He pours stew from the pot into a plastic quart container. “You know what you watched today?” he says.

“Yeah?”

He smiles mischievously.

“You didn’t see everything,” he says.

He hands me a quart, and I head back to the Big City, believing I know more than I probably do.

Official Brunswick Stew

Yield: 10 servings (5 quarts)

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of most visible fat

3 ounces fatback, cut into 4 long slabs (see ingredient note)

Water

2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into planks 3 inches long by 1 inch wide by 1/2-inch thick

1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, coarsely chopped

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

28 ounces canned, crushed, no-salt-added tomatoes plus their juices

28 ounces canned butter beans (baby lima beans; may substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen), drained

28 ounces canned white shoe peg corn, drained (may substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen)

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Ingredient note: It’s best to have the ingredients prepped before you start; hold the potatoes in cool water, if needed, to keep them from discoloring, then drain and dry before using. Fatback is available in most larger grocery stores (you might have to ask the folks in the white coats to bring it out), Asian markets and butcher shops.

Make ahead: The stew can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 4 months.

Directions: Combine the chicken and fatback in a large stockpot. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour; the chicken should begin to shred easily. Discard the fatback.

Stir in the potatoes, onions, black pepper, cayenne pepper, salt and sugar. Increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are quite soft.

Stir in the tomatoes and their juices and the butter beans; once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, cook for 15 minutes, then stir in the corn and butter. Cook for about 1 hour, reducing the heat to medium-low if needed, so the stew becomes quite thick.

Serve hot, or portion into servings and cool completely before storing.

Source: Official, as in inspired by the Brunswick Stewmaster’s Association of Brunswick County, Va.

Virginia’s Brunswick Proclamation Stew

Yield: 12 servings (6 quarts)

One 2 1/2-to-3-pound whole chicken

1 whole medium onion, peeled

2 ribs celery

Water

56 ounces diced, no-salt-added canned tomatoes plus their juices

3 whole medium white potatoes, peeled (about 1 pound total)

28 ounces canned butter beans, drained (baby lima beans; may substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

28 ounces canned whole-kernel corn, drained (may substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen)

Potato note: Some cooks dice the potatoes instead of cooking them whole and then mashing them. But the stew freezes better when the potatoes have been mashed.

Make ahead: The stew can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 4 months.

Combine the chicken, onion and celery in a large stockpot. Cover with water (about 8 cups); bring to a boil over high heat, using a spoon to skim off and discard any foam that forms on the surface. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low to maintain a low boil. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Discard the celery.

Transfer the whole chicken and the onion to a bowl to cool.

Use a slotted spoon to remove any bits of fat and/or skin from the broth. Add the tomatoes and their juices and the whole, peeled potatoes. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender; transfer them to a bowl and coarsely mash them. Return them to the pot.

Coarsely chop the onion and return it to the pot along with the butter beans and sugar. Increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce to medium-low. Season with the salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, stirring to incorporate. Cover and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. The stew should be thick.

Meanwhile, once the chicken is cool enough to handle, discard the skin and bones. Coarsely chop the meat; the yield is 2 to 2 1/2 cups.

Uncover the pot; stir in the corn and the cooled, chopped chicken. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, so those ingredients are heated through.

Serve hot, or portion into servings and cool completely before storing.

Source: Adapted from a recipe provided by the Brunswick County/Lake Gaston Tourism Association.

Southern Soul Brunswick Stew

Yield: 17 to 20 servings (about 8 quarts)

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) salted butter

2 large onions, cut into small dice (3 cups)

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sea salt

1/4 cup high-quality Worcestershire sauce, such as Lea & Perrins

1/2 cup North Carolina-style vinegar-pepper barbecue sauce, such as Southern Soul’s Red Swine Wine sauce (see note)

1 1/2 cups sweet brown sugar-and-mustard-based barbecue sauce, such as Southern Soul’s Sweet Georgia Soul sauce (see note)

1 pound pulled smoked chicken

1 pound chopped smoked pork

8 ounces chopped smoked brisket (see note)

8 ounces chopped smoked turkey (see note)

36 ounces (4 cups) high-quality crushed, canned no-salt-added tomatoes

8 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, or more as needed

2 cups coarsely chopped vine-ripened tomatoes (optional)

21 ounces (4 cups) frozen sweet yellow or white corn

20 ounces (scant 4 cups) frozen butter beans (baby lima beans)

10 dashes Texas Pete Hot Sauce, Tabasco or similar hot sauce, or to taste

Note: This recipe calls for 3 pounds of a variety of smoked meats, all of which are prepared at the restaurant that provided this recipe. For home cooks, 2 pounds of pulled, smoked chicken and 1 pound of pulled pork may be substituted - preferably freshly prepared at your favorite local barbecue restaurant. Or substitue your own. The sauces called for may be ordered online at southernsoulbbq.com, or you can find suitable substitutes at grocery stores or your local barbecue restaurant.

Make ahead: The stew can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 4 months.

Directions: Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent.

Stir in the garlic and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until fragrant, then add the cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt and Worcestershire sauce, stirring to incorporate. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, then stir in the two barbecue sauces and all of the smoked meat, making sure to stir so that all the meat is evenly coated. Partially cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Uncover and add the crushed tomatoes and the broth. Increase the heat to high and bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Add the chopped tomatoes, if using, the corn, butter beans and hot sauce. Cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the stew is thick enough for a spoon to stand in.

Add broth as needed to adjust the consistency to your liking.

Serve hot, or portion into servings and cool completely before storing.

Source: Harrison Sapp and Griffin Buffkin of Southern Soul Barbeque in St. Simons Island, Ga.

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