“Brunswick stew,” humorist Roy Blount Jr. reportedly quipped, “is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.”
Like the famous “Eastern Carolina Barbeque,” I believe the best Brunswick Stew is found in the Virginia/Carolina region. (Or perhaps in my kitchen. 🙂 ) No intention to slight the great state of Georgia here, but nothing I’ve tasted anywhere else comes close to the Virginia/Carolina style of authentic Southern Brunswick Stew.
Many recipes have generations and iterations, and this one is no different. This one is adapted from two different recipes; the first is from Showfood Chef , who in turn had adapted it from the original recipe found in “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
The origins of Brunswick Stew are somewhat disputed. A plaque on an old iron pot in Brunswick, Georgia, says the first Brunswick Stew was made in it on July 2, 1898.
A competing story claims a Virginia state legislator’s African-American chef, Jimmy Matthews, invented the recipe in 1828 on a hunting expedition. According to this account, while they were on the hunt, the camp cook “Uncle Jimmy” stirred together the first impromptu mixture that has become known as Brunswick Stew. The original thick soup was made from squirrels, onions, and stale bread. After his death, Matthews was succeeded by a series of local stew masters, and over time they added tomato, onion, corn, and potatoes to the recipe. By the 1840s the stew was being served at barbecues throughout Virginia, long before Georgia’s claim of Brunswicks’ first pot.
Regardless of Georgia’s claims, Virginia has the strongest evidence for establishing the provenance of this wonderful recipe which goes far beyond the original “Chef Jimmy” account. Brunswick Stew recipes appear in newspaper accounts of Virginia Barbeques as early as 1849, particularly the Alexandria Gazette. In 1879, four recipes for Brunswick Stew were published in Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, which fact seems to call into question Georgia’s claim of origin. According to the Lee Brothers, the current Brunswick Stew world champion, Henry Hicks, an Alberta, Virginia tobacco farmer, claims he was taught the recipe by Theo Matthews, who was the great-grandson of hunter/Chef “Uncle Jimmy Matthews.” That’s a direct linkage that’s hard to dispute. I think I have to agree with Matt and Ted Lee — with appropriate respect to Georgia stewmakers. I’m going with the state of my heritage and birth, Virginia, as the true origin of this wonderful stew. Although I give the Georgia historians and Brunswick Stew buffs an “E” for effort, by 1898, when Georgians claimed it originated in Brunwick, GA, the truth is Brunswick stew had already been served in Virginia for nearly 70 years.
To cement that claim, in 1988, the Virginia General Assembly proclaimed Brunswick County, Virginia the birthplace of the “gastronomic miracle” called Brunswick stew – “despite the attempts of pretenders from other states.” A later resolution was also passed naming the fourth Wednesday in January “Brunswick Stew Day” at the state capitol in Richmond. Virginia so strongly believes this claim there is a historical marker located on Rt. 46 about 4 miles south of Valentines, Virginia, right on the North Carolina border, which proclaims this very fact. This region of Virginia-North Carolina is only about an hour from my childhood home in Richmond, Virginia, and believe me this is the serious heart of Brunswick Stew country. Trust me, Southerners take this very seriously!
Some versions have a distinctly smoky taste. Eastern North Carolina Brunswick Stew has potatoes, which thickens it considerably. Eastern Virginia Brunswick Stew tends to be thinner, with more tomato flavor and less smoky flavor.The stew essentially resembles a very thick vegetable soup with meat. The key distinguishing factor between soup and Brunswick stew is the consistency. Brunswick stew must be thick; otherwise, it would be vegetable soup with meat added. Most recipes claiming authenticity call for squirrel or rabbit meat, but chicken, pork, and beef are also commonly used. I believe many of the authentic original recipes did indeed use squirrel or rabbit; like it’s distant cousin, Kentucky Burgoo, many of these recipes originated from hunters and the like, and most likely contained whatever meat they had available at the time.
The main difference between the Georgia and Virginia versions is primarily the types of meat used. The Virginia version tends to favor chicken as the primary meat, along with rabbit. The Georgia version tends to favor pork and beef along with squirrel. As there is no “official” recipe for Brunswick stew, it is possible to find chicken, pork, beef, and other types of meat included in the same recipe. Also, North Carolina natives have been known for their own unique concoction, leaving the tomato base and thickness but adding meats such as chicken breast chunks or pulled Eastern Carolina style pork barbeque. Recipes for the stew have varied over the years and there are literally hundreds of iterations as recipes have traveled down the family generational chains. Chicken has replaced the squirrel in more modern cook pots, while vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and butterbeans have been added in varying portions. The one thing that all cooks or stewmasters seem to agree on is that Brunswick Stew is neither “done” nor “official,” until the paddle stands up in the middle. Which essentially is what makes it a “stew” and not a “soup.”
Like most traditional dishes, everybody and their uncle has their own version, but Brunswick Stew enthusiasts and chefs around the world all agree on this issue — In order to be prepared properly, it must be preapared and cooked for hours slowly and lovingly. Historically, it is a long-cooked, one-pot spicy stew that is prepared in cast-iron cauldrons at church dinners, family reunions and gatherings, volunteer fire department fundraisers, and political rallies, all over the South. Recipes will often include instructions to make servings for hundreds, although a veritable library of family-sized instructions and recipes have made their way from Grandma’s kitchen to food blogs across the world. The recipe you see here most nearly represents the Brunswick Stew that I grew up with in southern Virginia, but with a decidedly significant North Carolinian emphasis.
Some of my earliest memories of tasting Brunswick Stew were at Bullock’s Bar-B-Que in Durham NC around the age of 12. We also used to buy it from the Bethany Methodist Church on Guess Rd in Durham…circa mid-1950’s. They would cook it on a Saturday morning in this huge black cauldron over a wood fire. Around lunch time you could sample some on the spot or take home a pint or quart for later. It was an instant hit with me and I’ve looked for it all over the country as I’ve traveled. — I’ve made this particular recipe several times, and it comes the closest to the original 1950’s “Bullock’s Barbeque” taste that literally takes me back to my childhood days. I have declared this recipe to be my de facto gold standard Brunswick Stew Recipe!
Warning! It’s gonna’ take you a good half a day to cook up this wonderful Southern dish, as it has to be prepared incrementally. You’re not simply frying some chicken and pork here; no, they and the peppers must be carefully and properly browned, to bring out those deep, rich flavors that come forth from the browning process. In addition, the flavorful bits of browned meat and such that remain in the bottom of your pot are vital in building the complex flavors for this wonderful stew. Grab some wine, turn on the music and get crackin’!
Preparation Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: About 3 hours +/-
Serves about 12
Makes About 6-7 Quarts
1/4 lb slab bacon, rough diced (*Note – if you can’t find slab bacon, substitute thick sliced bacon instead)
4 Serrano chiles, sliced lengthways, seeded & flattened
3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1lb boneless pork butt, cut into 1″ chunks
1 Tablespoon sea salt for seasoning, plus extra to taste (see below)
3 quarts Chicken Stock –
2 Bay leaves
2 -3 celery stalks
2lbs potatoes peeled, roughly diced
1 ½ cups carrots (about 6 small carrots), chopped
Also gather the following ingredients, but they are not needed until after the initial stew mixture has cooked for about 1 ½ hours. You will have time to prepare them while it cooks, that way these ingredients will not dry out while they’re waiting to be added.
3 ½ cups onion (about 4 medium onions) chopped
2 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from the cob (about 4 ears) – or equivalent amount of frozen corn
3 cups lima beans, preferably fresh (1 ¼ lbs) or frozen, that have been defrosted
1 – 28oz and 1-14.5oz can whole, peeled tomatoes, drained
These ingredients are added at the very end:
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 2 lemons
Additional Sea Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
McIlhenny’s Louisiana Tabasco sauce to taste
Reserve most of the bacon fat in your pot, and with the pan on the burner, add the chiles. Roast the chiles until they just start to smell good, or makes your nose burn a little, maybe no more than a minute. Transfer into the bowl with the bacon.
Sprinkle a liberal amount of sea salt and fresh ground pepper on both sides of the pork and chicken pieces. Place the pork pieces in the pot and sear all sides of the pieces until golden brown. You just want to sear them a bit, not cook them completely.
When suitably browned, transfer to the bowl with bacon and chiles, add more bacon fat if needed, or olive oil, (I prefer EVOO) then add in the chicken thighs, again, browning all sides nicely. Keep the thighs separated, don’t crowd them.. When properly browned, place them in the bowl with the bacon, chiles and pork, and set aside.
Add 2 cups of the chicken stock to the pan and essentially deglaze the pan, (a wooden spatula works great here) making sure to get all the wonderful flavor bits which have cooked to the bottom. As you deglaze and stir, the stock will assume a richly dark color and release a nice-smelling aroma. Bring it to a boil and let it boil away until reduced by at least half.
Add your remaining stock, the bay leaves, celery, potatoes, chicken, pork, bacon, chiles and any liquid that may have gathered at the bottom of the bowl they were resting in. Bring the pot back up to a low boil/high simmer, over medium/high heat. Reduce heat to low and cover, remember to stir every 15 minutes, give or take, to thoroughly meld the flavors. Simmer, on low, for approximately 1 ½ hours.
The stock may become a yellow tinge with pieces of chicken or pork floating up, the celery will be very limp, as will the chiles. Taste the stock, according to the original recipe, it “should taste like the best chicken soup you’ve ever had”.
While this is cooking, prepare the following ingredients:
3 ½ cups onion (about 4 medium onions) chopped
2 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from the cob (about 4 ears)
3 cups lima beans, preferably fresh (1 ¼ lbs) or defrosted frozen
1 35oz can whole, peeled tomatoes, drained (or 1-28oz & 1-14.5oz can)
With a pair of tongs, remove the chicken and pork pieces to a colander over the bowl you used earlier. Be careful, as by this time, the meats will be very tender and may start falling apart. Remove the bay leaf, celery, chiles, bacon and discard. After you’ve allowed the meat to cool enough to handle, carefully remove all the meat from the bones, (if you didn’t use boneless thighs), shredding it as you go. If you used boneless thigh fillets, this step will be a lot easier. Return all the shredded meat to the pot, throwing away any bones.
Add in your carrots, and stir gently, allowing it to come back to a slow simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, for at least 25 minutes, or until the carrots have started to soften.
Now add in your onions, corn, butterbeans, and tomatoes. Crush the tomato, then add them to the pot. Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring every so often until the stew has reduced slightly, and onions, corn and butterbeans are tender.
Remove from heat and add in vinegar, lemon juice, stir to blend in well. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce if desired.
You can either serve immediately or refrigerate for 24 hours, which makes the flavors meld more and makes the overall stew even better.
Serve hot, traditionally accompanied by saltine crackers.
Keeps nicely in the fridge for 7-10 days, also freezes well.
Bon Appetit, y’all!
Adapted from two different recipes; the first is from Showfood Chef , who in turn had adapted it from the original recipe found in “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee