Cookin', Critters and Chillun

Brunswick stew: born in Virginia or Georgia?

So is Brunswick stew originally from Virginia or Georgia? I was always told that the thick chicken-tomatoes-corn-butterbean concoction which is a favorite side dish with barbecue or at family gatherings and festivals in the fall came from Brunswick, Ga.

Stewmaster John Clary of the Proclamation Stew Crew is adamant: “It didn’t happen in Georgia,” he said emphatically. “It’s from Brunswick County, Va.,” said the guy who’s made a name for himself cooking Brunswick stew and whose card brags, “The best in B.S. The original home of Brunswick Stew. Brunswick County, Virginia.”

Stewmaster John Clary of Brunswick County, Va., takes a break after he and the Proclamation Stew Crew cooked hundreds of gallons at HopeTree Family Services on Saturday, Nov. 9. Photo by Meg Hibbert
Stewmaster John Clary of Brunswick County, Va., takes a break after he and the Proclamation Stew Crew cooked hundreds of gallons at HopeTree Family Services on Saturday, Nov. 9. Photo by Meg Hibbert

He was taking a break from stirring and serving hundreds of gallons of the stew at HopeTree Family Services’ stew day on Nov. 9, when the stew crew fed about 350 people. The crew started cooking that morning at 4:30 to have the food ready by noon.

“It’s documented that Brunswick stew was first made in 1828 on the banks of the Nottoway River,” said Clary. “Georgia had a stew pot on I-95 that used to say ‘First cooked in 1890.’ Last time I went past there they had changed the sign so it said, ‘since early colonial days.’ ”

Clary mentioned he got started cooking Brunswick stew as a member of the fire department in Lawrenceville, Va. It was in 1973, a year after he graduated from Virginia Tech.

Now he lives in Brunswick County and Radford, he said. He and crew members Lonnie, Phil, Chiles, Tim, Rodney and P.L. have been cooking Brunswick stew for years as a thank you for the Virginia Tech Athletic Department.

They were at HopeTree because Glen Reynolds, one of the trustees for HopeTree, hires them to do a thank-you meal for the former Virginia Baptist Children’s Home people and community that support it.

“I’ve got stew masters and apprentices in Richmond and all over,” said Clary. He and the crew have won cooking contests, and have cooked at the Smithsonian for the National Folk Life Festival, and in New York City for the Big Apple Barbecue Festival, to name a few.

And no, he doesn’t put squirrel in his Brunswick stew. “Too many little bones,” he said, looking serious.

At the lunch, the stew was served with a sweet, yellow commercial corn bread mix, but a corn bread cookoff beforehand had seven different entries. Two were made with white corn meal, the only color my sainted Georgia mama would have approved of. Johnnie Nash, HopeTree’s vice president for children’s ministries, won for what he called Johnnie’s Corn Muffins. They were yellow and sweet, too, and had sour cream and creamed corn in them.

Here’s the Proclamation Stew Crew’s Brunswick Stew recipe. It makes 10 quarts.

5-1/2 pounds deboned chicken (thighs are better); 6 ounces fatback, ground or chopped; 4 pounds white potatoes, cut up french fry size is OK; 2-1/2 pounds yellow onions, chopped; 1-1/2 quarts crushed tomatoes; 2-1/2 quarts small green butterbeans; 1-1/2 quarts white shoe peg corn; 1 stick margarine; 1/4 ounce black pepper, 1/4 ounce red pepper, 1-1/2 ounce salt, 1-1/2 ounce sugar, or you can season to taste.

Prepare onions and potatoes ahead of starting the stew so you can stir continuously, which is necessary for the thick consistency to call it a stew and not a soup.

Put the chicken and fatback in the pot; cover with water; bring to a boil and cook until chicken starts coming apart. Add potatoes, onions and 1/4 of seasonings. Bring back to a boil and cook untilĀ  potatoes are soft. Add tomatoes and 1/4 seasonings. Bring back to boil and cook 5 minutes. Add drained butterbeans and 1/4 seasonings. Bring back to a boil and cook until butterbeans are soft. Add drained corn, margarine and balance of seasonings. Cook about 10-15 minutes and then enjoy your stew.

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