They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case then the state of Georgia really likes us here in Virginia.
It’s been an on-going debate since the first squirrel was skinned: did the rich, savory, comforting bowl of goodness known as Brunswick stew originate there—or here? Spoiler alert: it was here.
Tradition says that in 1828, while on a hunting expedition with Dr. Creed Haskins and several others, African-American cook “Uncle” Jimmy Matthews concocted a thick, rich stew of squirrel, slow-simmered in a large iron pot with butter, onions, bread and seasonings.
It was a hit, according to legend, and today is open to interpretation and inspiration as ingredients go. Rabbit and squirrel were once the primary components, while today chicken and pork are used. Most Brunswick stews are tomato-based and augment an animal protein with lima beans, corn, potatoes and even okra.
The result is a rich, thick, hearty stew with complex and complementary flavors ranging from savory to sweet to smoky. Make a big pot; the leftovers taste even better as the ingredients mesh and meld and become more unified. Cornbread is the quintessential accompaniment.
Make it at home (my recipe is below), enjoy it at a local restaurant (see “Dishing it Up” on page 97) or celebrate it at the annual Taste of Brunswick Festival (this year on Oct. 8; www.TasteOfBrunswickFestival.com) up the road in Brunswick County.
As for Georgia, the town there put up a display of a big cast iron pot and a plaque saying their stew was first cooked in 1898—some 70 years after Virginia’s first bowl was served. Goober state: claim denied.
Brunswick Stew Recipe
From my cookbook Dishing Up Virginia
1 large (4–5 pound) boiler chicken
1 large onion, unpeeled and quartered
3 carrots, unpeeled and quartered
3 celery stalks, quartered
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled and crushed
1 small bunch fresh Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt
4–6 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
3 pounds new potatoes, quartered
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
6 cups crushed tomatoes, stewed or canned
2 cups prepared lima beans
2 cups corn kernels
1 tablespoon sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon ground red pepper
4 tablespoons butter
1. Make the chicken. Place the chicken in a large stockpot and cover with water.
Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, peppercorns and sea salt.
Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow boil and cook until the chicken is tender and the meat is falling off the bone, 45 to 90 minutes.
2. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate or cutting board to cool; do not discard the broth. Debone the chicken and shred or chop the meat. Strain the broth; cool, and skim off the fat.
3. Make the stew. Cook the bacon, stirring frequently, in a large stockpot over high heat until cooked. Add 4 cups of the reserved chicken broth to the stockpot. (If you don’t have 4 full cups, use additional chicken or vegetable stock, or water to make up the difference) Add the potatoes and onion, and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until the potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes.
4. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the reserved chicken. Reduce to a simmer and add the tomatoes, lima beans, corn, sugar, salt, black pepper and red pepper. Stir well and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add additional broth or water if needed, but stew should be thick.
5. Remove the stew from the heat. Stir in the butter until it melts and serve immediately.
Yields 8-12 servings
By Patrick Evans-Hylton