Queenie Cooks: Brunswick Stew

By: Terry Harris | Email: Click Here
Posted: November 24, 2018 | 8:05 a.m.

You know how around Thanksgiving somebody invariably says, “Name something you’re thankful for” and you have to stop and think a minute to narrow things down a bit?  Well, in the area of food, I wouldn’t have to think for a second before saying, “Old Fashioned Brunswick Stew!” I love this Southern staple so much that, much as I generally go for exotic foods, if I were forced to pick a “last meal” one of the stars of that menu definitely would be Brunswick Stew.

Let me clarify that.  It would be Granddaddy Frank’s Brunswick stew – or something very close.  Some of the strongest memories of my early childhood center around watching Granddaddy perched by the big old black, iron pot, stirring that delectable mélange of stewed chicken and fresh vegetables for literally hours over an open fire of split logs.  Savory stewed chicken, tender young corn cut right off the cobb within minutes of picking and stuck in the freezer along with fresh young butterbeans, tomatoes, onions, potatoes – that’s it.  Plain, country food.  The stuff your grandparents used to grow.  

Folks always line up wherever there’s a really good local Brunswick Stew to be found – like here at the Wakefield Foundation

Today, I’m going to tell you how to make your own, “one chicken” Brunswick Stew at home on your stove.  And it’s so delicious that, except for the lack of the “wood-smoke” edge, you’d swear it was just like the original.   But first, I’m going to share a little more of that memory – and tell you about a couple of BIG batch “Stew Makin’” events that are pretty darned close.  

Like I said, I well remember Granddaddy Frank’s Stew.  I can still see him in my mind as he’d sit there for hours and stoke the fire and stir, stoke the fire and stir, occasionally calling, “Snoot, (he always called her that, and I never did know why) bring out the butterbeans” or “Snoot, I’m ready for the potatoes,” as he made “his” stew. It wasn’t until years later that Mama pointed out with a smile that “his stew” was made up of chickens that Grandma Evelyn fed, raised, killed, and plucked to go into the stewpot, butterbeans that she planted, hoed, picked, and shelled, potatoes that she…. Well, you get the idea.  An awful lot of work went into that stew, and a lot of love – which was the main ingredient, really.  

Nowadays, the big black iron pots are pretty much gone, replaced by some pretty amazing modern stewpots, as Buddy Savedge explained while overseeing the making of 100 gallons – at one time – for the recent Wakefield Foundation Homecoming.

When it’s all cooked down until the spoon – or paddle – stands alone, you know the Brunswick Stew is done.

“The Wakefield and Waverly people have been cooking this stew since they started this Foundation thing back in the sixties,” he explained.  “The Original stew cooker was D.C. Gay, Jr., and we kind of follow his recipe; he sort of taught us that came along.  My job is basically to organize it and get the community to help and figure out the recipe that we’re gonna use and the number of ingredients that we’re going to use and the pots.  It’s gotten so sophisticated, but I remember when they’d be making probably 10 or 12 of those big, black iron pots of stew. The main ingredient is chicken, though we do add a little beef, and everything we use is frozen – not canned.  We don’t do anything too fancy with this.  We season with a little bit of salt and pepper and paprika and a little sugar, but not much of any of them. JB Burnette owns the 60 gallon pot, and Len Joyner owns the 40 gallon one, so we’ve got 100 gallons of stew and it looks like it’s gonna be a pretty good stew.”  

It WAS. I took several quarts home with me. 

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when the Lake Gaston Chamber of Commerce made their own “famous  Brunswick Stew.” This crew, straddling the VA/NC border, follows basically the same recipe/methods, but they add some “secret ingredients” for flavoring, and they carefully guard the bag of whatever seasonings they bring in for the stew-making.  All I’ve been able to pick out is that they use a little more hot pepper than I would.  But it’s mighty tasty as well, and six quarts of that ended up in my house, too!   

Buddy Savege and company know that stirring the stew is almost as important as the ingredients – here cooking up 100 gallons of the Southern staple

I guess my point is that there are lots of folks who still make Brunswick Stew. And there are a lot of recipe variations.  Some folks add carrots or cabbage, some add beef or turkey or pork or bacon or bacon grease or even, back in the day, I understand that squirrel was a popular addition.  Some folks even add things that seem bizarre to me – like green beans?  And I’ve even had it cooked to an unrecognizable brown mess. I suppose it’s a matter of what you’re used to, but what I call a “real” Brunswick stew has everything as nearly fresh-cut as possible  and simple seasonings – like you would have found in any kitchen years ago. 

So, like I said, the recipe I love is the one used for many years to make Granddaddy Frank’s Brunswick Stew.  Mostly.  I checked with Mama on these directions, and am sharing basically the way I do it now – like buying chickens all ready to throw in the pot, vegetables come from the grocery store instead of the garden, and Mama speeds the cooking time up considerably by pulverizing the tomatoes in the blender. But if you user this “slightly updated” method, I promise you can make one mighty fine “one chicken’s worth” Brunswick Stew on your stove at home.  In fact, if you follow this recipe, well, I may be prejudiced, but… Oh, who am I kidding?  It IS the best!  At least, if your last name is Harris it is.  And even if it’s not, trust me – it’s mighty good.  And I do believe that you’ll find that both the flavor and the memories it evokes as time goes by will be “something to be thankful for.”  Enjoy!   

Granddaddy Frank’s Brunswick Stew

  • 1 chicken (Granddaddy used to say you had to use an old hen, for the higher fat content. Mama says you can use a large fryer, but you may have to add some butter if you do.) 
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Quarts of tomatoes (Mama said she sometimes only uses one. See directions.)
  • 2 Quarts butterbeans  (Please don’t use lima beans!  Or, if you must, use the baby ones.  Frozen, not canned, if possible.) 
  • 1 Quart tender, young corn (Again, frozen rather than canned, if possible.) 
  • 3 large potatoes. (About three large potatoes, peeled, cut up, boiled and partially mashed)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Sugar (VERY little)
  • Hot pepper or hot sauce (optional)

Put your chicken, the onion, and some salt and pepper in a big soup pot in just enough water to cover the pieces and cook on medium – a nice simmer – until fall-off- the-bones tender.  Purists will leave it cooking and dip and dip and dip until they’ve pulled out all the skin and bones.  I prefer to take out the chicken, removed the cooked skin and bones there, and then return the chicken to the still-boiling water – which is now broth. 

Add the butterbeans and cook for about 15-20 minutes, until tender.  This is when you want to start stirring fairly often because pretty soon you’ll want to start thickening – which is when it can stick.  But for now, you may need to add water as you go so your vegetables cook nicely, but be careful not to over-add because there aren’t enough potatoes in the world to thicken a really runny stew – and you don’t want that!  

About halfway through the butterbean cooking part, add your corn.  

Now start tasting it and adjusting the salt, and add the first quart of pulverized tomatoes.  This is where you decide if you want one quart or two of the tomatoes, and you can only decide by taste.  You want enough to color it nicely, but it’is definitely not a “tomato” dish – like spaghetti sauce.  You just really want the finished product to be orange.  

Continue to taste and add salt and pepper (and the optional hot pepper if you’re using that) and finally you’ll be tasting to see how acidic the tomatoes have made it.  This is when you may want to add a tiny bit of sugar if it needs the balance, but only one teaspoon at a time, because this is supposed to be savory – not sweet.

Finally, when all the rest of the vegetables are tender, start thickening with your peeled, boiled, drained mashed potatoes.  (You also can use instant mashed potatoes, but I don’t think it’s as good – plus I miss seeing the little bits of potato in it.)  Stir constantly as it thickens, to avoid scorching it, and when it’s thick enough that you can eat it with a fork, it’s done!  Enjoy!   

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