Why everyone should make Brunswick stew, a Southern classic


By Eric Kim, The New York Times

Everyone loves Stewie.

Standing at 5 feet 8 inches tall — 7 feet, if you count the wooden paddle coming out of his head — Stewie is the official mascot of Brunswick County, Virginia. A smiley cast-iron pot, he’s filled with Brunswick stew, the motley mix of shredded meat with the “Virginia trinity” of tomatoes, corn and butter beans.

Dixie Walker, tourism coordinator for the county, designed Stewie a few years ago and occasionally wears the costume. This month, she donned the Stewie suit once more for the 25th annual Taste of Brunswick Festival in Lawrenceville, Virginia, the Brunswick County town where stew masters from across the country competed for the honor of best stew. One goal of the festival — and of Stewie — is to spread the word about Brunswick stew and the county that shares its name.

If there’s any American dish that’s due for a national revival, it’s Brunswick stew. Thrifty and soul-warming, this hearty Southern staple is savory, sweet, tangy, familiar yet surprising and, most important, hot. And the thing is, you don’t have to be in Brunswick County to enjoy it — you can make it wherever home is for you.

In his 1972 book “American Cookery,” chef and television personality James Beard called Brunswick stew “one of the most famous of American dishes.” It was once served to presidents (a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s) and featured in countless cookbooks, including 1879’s “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” and the first edition of “Joy of Cooking,” published in 1931.

With its blend of slow-cooked meat and vegetables, its comforting mellowness, Brunswick stew is something everyone can use a little of right now. But it’s also a reminder of our national past: a regional dish that tells the story of America — of its resourcefulness, its land and a stewing history that preceded the country’s formation.

In “Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition,” Joseph R. Haynes wrote about how the Assiniboine, Indigenous Americans from the Northern Great Plains, boiled water in taut, hide-lined holes in the ground to make soups and stews. This stew, like many in the United States today, owes so much to such traditions, in addition to culinary influences from Africa and Europe.

According to local historians, in 1828, James Matthews, a Black camp cook, accompanied Dr. Creed Haskins and his friends on a hunting trip in Brunswick County and stewed the squirrels that they caught. A 1988 Virginia General Assembly proclamation supports this story as the true origin of the dish (though other Brunswicks, including ones in North Carolina, Maine and especially Georgia, might disagree).

In Brunswick County, Virginia, the stew is often the main event, maybe served with a side of cornbread. But in Brunswick, Georgia, it plays a supporting role and is offered as a side dish to meat on barbecue restaurant menus. (Humorist and Georgia native Roy Blount Jr. is quoted as saying, “Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.”)

Historically, the Georgia version includes barbecue sauce and even bottled ketchup. The 1928 cookbook “Southern Cooking,” by Mrs. S.R. Dull, a popular Atlanta Journal columnist, features two Brunswick stew recipes that call for an entire bottle of “catsup.” To this day, a vinegary sharpness runs through many iterations.

Clyde Eacho doesn’t add ketchup to his multiple-award-winning Brunswick stew, which he cooks in a giant cauldron outside his restaurant the Clubhouse Grill in Lawrenceville, Virginia. There’s more of a tomato base in the Virginian versions than the Georgian ones, said Eacho, 60, but “no pot is the same.” Even from his own hands, the stew changes from batch to batch, which is why he tastes as he goes and gives each pot what it needs. More spice from Texas Pete, maybe, or an extra handful of secret spices.

Perhaps most notable are the potatoes, which Eacho adds in big chunks. As they are stirred into the stew over multiple hours, their edges break down and become fuzzy, thickening the broth while cooking through to a wonderful texture that might be the platonic ideal of a stewed spud.

Clyde Eacho prepares Brunswick stew with ...
Clyde Eacho prepares Brunswick stew with his grandson at the Clubhouse Grill in Brunswick County, Va., Oct. 12, 2022. Soul-warming, savory, sweet and with a deep history, Brunswick stew is perfect for right now. (Jennifer Chase, The New York Times)


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