Story and photos by Karyn Miller Brooks
“Oh, it’s from Georgia! He’s definitely from Georgia,” said my Savannah-born friend LaRaine DuPuy when I asked about Brunswick Stew’s origins. She promptly sent me two recipes for the robust preparation, both from Georgian cookbooks.
In downtown Brunswick, Georgia, a 25-gallon iron casserole stands on a pedestal with an inscription that reads: “The first Braunschweig stew was prepared in this pot on July 2, 1898 on the island of St. Simon.” That seems to me to be sufficient proof that Brunswick Stew originated in Brunswick, Georgia.
According to Nick Mumejian, pastor of our church, they are combative words. Well, he didn’t say it exactly like that, but he does claim the stew came from Brunswick, Virginia. In 1988, the Virginia General Assembly named Brunswick County the birthplace of the “gastronomic miracle.” At its 2002 session, the Assembly designated the third Wednesday of each year as Brunswick Stew Day:
People also read…
“WHEREAS the 1988 General Assembly resolution proclaimed Brunswick County the birthplace of the ‘gastronomic wonder’ known as Brunswick Stew; and
“Despite attempts by out-of-state pretenders, Virginia’s claim as the Brunswick Stew Capital was reaffirmed in 1999 when Brunswick County Stew Champion Jeff Daniel was declared Brunswick County World Champion Brunswick Stew; and
“WHEREAS Brunswick Stew has a long and glorious history in the Commonwealth…”
Even some North Carolinians argue (though not quite as vocally as their rivals) that the stew originated in Brunswick County, North Carolina.
Regardless, the earliest versions, which were probably made by Native Americans BEFORE there was even a place called Brunswick, included ingredients like squirrel or possum or rabbit or even groundhog and locally grown vegetables. Humorist and author Roy Blount Jr. (a Decatur, Georgia native) once joked, “Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals with ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.”
Today’s Brunswick stew likely features chicken or pork instead of the wilder wild animals. Some recipes include bacon or fatback for seasoning, others some type of barbecue sauce. Every version I encountered made lots, lots, lots of stew. Enough to share and some to freeze for later.
The following Brunswick stew recipe includes ketchup, vinegar, and mustard, which form a type of one-pot barbecue sauce similar to the “official recipe” of Brunswick stew’s “official homeland,” according to the Sherpaguides.com travel guide for Georgia. Instead of using bacon or fatback, the recipe includes a kielbasa sausage for added depth.
Georgia-style Brunswick stew
Adapted from Cook’s Country Magazine
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed
1 pound red potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
8 ounces. Kielbasa sausage, sliced into ¼ inch thick slices
¼ tsp red pepper flakes (or more if you like it spicy)
1 c canned tomato passata
1. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Add ketchup and ¼ c water and cook, stirring frequently, until stock forms at the bottom of the saucepan and the mixture has thickened, about 6 minutes.
3. Add the chicken, potatoes, kielbasa, 6 tablespoons vinegar, 1½ tablespoons Worcestershire mustard, garlic powder, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, pepper flakes, and the remaining 3¾ c water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until potatoes are tender, 30 to 35 minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Transfer chicken to a plate and let cool 5 minutes, then shred into bite-sized pieces with 2 forks.
5. While the chicken is cooling, stir in the tomatoes, lima beans, and corn into the stew and simmer uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.
6. Stir in the shredded chicken and remaining 1½ tablespoons Worcestershire and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and the remaining vinegar (up to 2 tbsp).
7. Serve hot with cornbread or biscuits.
“If it has ketchup or barbecue sauce, that’s the Georgia version. You’d be kicked out of Old Dominion if you had that in there.”
“It’s blasphemous to put barbecue sauce in Brunswick stew.”
Among my mother’s cookbooks I found a copy of Housekeeping in Old Virginia. It is a reprint of the original 1879 edition. It contains four separate recipes for Brunswick stew, none of which contain ketchup or barbecue sauce. This is one of my favorites:
About four hours before dinner, place two or three slices of bacon, two squirrels or chicken, and a sliced onion in a gallon of water. Simmer for a while, then add a quart of peeled tomatoes, two grated corn on the cob, three sliced Irish potatoes, and a handful of butter beans and half a pod of bell pepper.
Simmer everything together for about an hour, until you can remove the bones. When ready, add a spoonful of breadcrumbs and a large spoonful of butter.
Here’s an updated recipe for Virginia Brunswick Stew. Nick said it was very similar to the stew his Virginia grandmother made. Of course, his grandmother did NOT need a prescription.
Virginia Brunswick Stew
Adapted from recipe in Washington Post
Serves more than 12 or 5,000 (with God’s blessing)
3 pounds. boneless, skinless chicken thighs stripped of visible fat
3 ounces. Fatback*, cut into 4 long slices (Nick left this out when he started cooking for his Jewish and Muslim friends.)
water, enough to cover the chicken
2 lbs. white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ pounds. yellow onions, roughly chopped
¾ t freshly ground black pepper
1½ T kosher salt or to taste
28 ounces. canned, chopped, unsalted tomatoes and their juices
28 ounces. Canned butter beans (baby lima beans; can substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen), drained
28 ounces. Canned white corn, drained (can substitute 3 cups fresh or frozen)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
*Fatback is a piece of pork fat from the animal’s spine. You could substitute pork belly or even a few slices of bacon for a similar effect.
1. Combine the chicken and bacon in a large stock pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and cook, uncovered, about 1 hour; the chicken should start to shred easily. Throw away the bacon.
2. Stir in potatoes, onions, black pepper, cayenne, salt and sugar. Increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture is simmering, reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are quite tender.
3. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice and the butter beans; Once the mixture begins to bubble around the edges, cook for 15 minutes, then stir in the corn and butter.
4. Cook for about 1 hour, reducing the heat to medium-low if necessary to allow the stew to thicken quite a bit.
5. Serve hot or portion into portions and allow to cool completely before storing.
LaRaine and Nick may not agree on the origins of Brunswick Stew, and the information I’ve presented certainly doesn’t resolve the longstanding friendly debate. I’m just glad this “gastronomic marvel” found its way to Texas. This is a fight we don’t have to fight. ￼