One big cast-iron pot and a heap of down-home flavor spells Brunswick Stew.
Posted in , Jan 1, 2008
You might say I've got stew in my blood. It started with an article in my local paper a few years back about Brunswick Stew—one of those great old Southern dishes born of thrifty ingenuity. The story goes that some hunters were out on a long trip, and when suppertime rolled around, the fellow doing the cooking didn't have much to work with—some stale bread, potatoes and onions, a few squirrels they'd caught that day. This intrepid hunter-cook seasoned the stew with lots of salt and pepper and set it to simmer over the fire. It's a time-honored culinary institution now down here in southeastern Virginia, where I was born and bred.
These days, we make it with chicken instead of squirrel, and a lot more vegetables. Like all folk traditions, it has evolved. It's a complete meal in one dish. Around here, you might see huge cast-iron pots holding 95 gallons of the delicious stew, bubbling away at family reunions and church suppers. It's almost as big as barbecuing. And, for my money, better.
I've known of Brunswick Stew my whole life. My dad used to make it on special occasions. Always on July 4, when there were so many tasty vegetables fresh from the garden—corn and tomatoes and lima beans—all cooked over an open fire. I regretted that I never took down the recipe before he passed away. Sometimes he'd let my brother and me help build the fire or take turns stirring the stew with the big maple paddle. Something about making that stew brought us closer. It's the kind of cooking men can bond over.
So when I saw that article, it brought back lots of good memories. I noticed something else it said: A man named Chiles Cridlin was a local master of the art of Brunswick Stew. Chiles Cridlin? Surely there could only be one. It had to be the same man I worked with at the furniture manufacturing company where I'm a quality-control engineer.
"I read that article about Brunswick Stew," I told Chiles later. "I didn't know you were a stew master."
He laughed. "I can't take the credit. That's my son. He's the stew master!"
I told Chiles about my father, how he used to make Brunswick Stew, how I had great memories of cooking with him.
"Just wish I'd gotten the recipe," I said. He put me in touch with his son right away, who was happy to have a new recruit to the Brunswick Stew cause. I discovered from him that the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has an apprenticeship program for an aspiring stew master. I signed right up.
It's still funny to me how that one newspaper story awakened my passion for this stew. I was on fire. I wanted to learn everything there was to know. I was determined to become a certified stew master—just like Chiles and four of his buddies in the "Proclamation Stew Crew": John Drew, Lonnie, Phil and Rodney. Soon, the six of us were cooking Brunswick Stew around the state and even around the country. We love to make stew for charity events. It's a great feeling to do something you love that helps out good causes. Sometimes I think our wives and kids may worry we're too focused on this stew business. But they understand what it means to us.
There's some argument about where the first Brunswick Stew was made. Of course, I believe it was Brunswick County, Virginia—just two counties away from me. Some folks down in Brunswick, Georgia, are inclined to disagree!
But that's beside the point. It's more than just a dish; it's something that connects families and friends through generations. I think back to those hunters who first came up with the stew; they could've been my forefathers. Like I say, it's like it's in the blood.
Try out this traditional Brunswick Stew recipe at home!