Red Oak Stew Crew member Billy Waller, left, watches the Governor of Virginia. Robert F. McDonnell swings the paddle at last year's Brunswick Stew Day in Richmond. (BOB BROWN/Associated Press)
When I arrive in the south-central Virginia city of Alberta (population around 300) on a brilliant blue winter day to unravel the mysteries of Brunswick stew around 8:30am. m., I find four guys weighing about 85 gallons. Iron stand Dutch oven, steam rising from its chicken and water contents, the first stage of braising.
"What time did you start?" I ask.
Team leader George Daniel, a mustachioed, white-haired 73-year-old auctioneer in faded zip-up dungarees, takes the opportunity to guide me through the long and complicated process. "It started yesterday," he says.
"Yesterday?" I ask confused.
"Billy, cut potatoes and onions."
That would be Billy Waller, 76, a retiree from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Waller, a stocky man in a red cap, blue shirt and jeans, uses a long-handled shovel to stir 160 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 18 gallons of well water, turning the liquid at the bottom into a milk pot. "We cut a bit," he says dryly.
Daniel and Waller is sort of a stew made by Lennon and McCartney of Virginia Brunswick. The two have been cooking together for so many years that they have lost count. Do you agree that I can say "more than 20". His team, the Red Oak Stew Crew, won first place in the Brunswick Stew competition at the annual A Taste of Brunswick festival in October, so many times they lost count.
Their victories earned them repeat trips to the state capital, Richmond, to cook the concoction on the fourth Wednesday in January, also known as Brunswick Stew Day. The Virginia General Assembly approved the designation in 2002. It followed a 1988 resolution that proclaimed Brunswick County "The Original Home of Brunswick Stew," a rebuke to the city of Brunswick, Georgia, whose legislature also issued a proclamation , in which it was stated that the stew was made there.
Georgians point to a plate on a 25-gallon stew at St. Simon's, outside the town of Brunswick, that was used in 1898 to support their claim. Virginians say the stew was created in 1828 by Jimmy Matthews, a slave who simmered squirrels, breadcrumbs, onions, butter and spices for the hunt for his master, Creed Haskins. In Southern Food, John Egerton suggests that Native Americans likely prepared the stew before either state was a colony.
Be that as it may, the squirrel has long been replaced by chicken and, especially in Georgia, by other types of meat, especially pork. He supposed additional vegetables, usually tomatoes, small beans, and corn, and Georgians usually added peas. Some stew masters even cook it over a wood fire to give it a smoky flavor. However, most of them use more manageable propane flames. Smoked meat is sometimes added, and the spice level, while occasionally fiery, is usually hot.
I first tried Brunswick Stew in Atlanta in 1988 and have since tried various versions in the South. But there are so many variations that the more I researched the stew, the less I understood. So I went to Brunswick County to take a closer look.
The differences somehow do not obscure the basic identity of the stew, which is thick in texture and brown in color. It is usually done as part of a community event, like Daniel and Waller are doing on this special day in Alberta to cook to raise funds for a Church mission trip to Nicaragua.
Waller takes turns with two younger men: Michael Grimm, 29, Daniel's son-in-law, and Scott Brandt, 47, a five-year-old crewman who says he's still an apprentice. The four of them started cooking at 7:45 am.
At around 9:30 a.m., Daniel uses an old metal strainer to scoop 100 kilos of sliced onions out of a huge fridge and into the pan. He does the same with 100 pounds of potatoes, cut into fillets and dunked in water that is browned by the spices. I ask Daniel about the smells in the colder water. "That," he says with a slight smile, "I can't tell you." A stew master must have the secrets of it.
Huge clouds of steam rise from the pot, engulfing Waller, who, after being hexed by the others, has retaken his helm. The process of preparing the stew is not only long but also tedious. I know because I ask to stir the pot. Daniel agrees. The others comment that it is a great honor to be admitted. I swing the bat vigorously, trying to find a rhythm that doesn't strain my shoulder muscles, and keep my hands away from the sizzling rim of the pot as I go about my primary task: keeping the stew from burning. The bottom. After a while, Waller takes over. He has found a problem. "Cuddled up together," he says. His tone suggests simple observation, not judgment (I think).
Ingredients are added at intervals. Several giant cans of white beans around 10:15 a.m. m., giant cans of grated tomatoes at 10:35 a.m. m., large cans of two kinds of corn, cream and pins, sometime after noon. On the last few legs, Daniel pours copious amounts of salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper into the pan. From time to time, team members pour the stew into small plastic foam cups to test for flavor. More salt is added. More pepper. More cayenne pepper.
Waller places the bat in the middle of the pot and doesn't budge. “The stew is ready when the oar is raised,” says Daniel.
It is rumored that there is a notch in the bottom of the jumbo pot to accommodate the paddle. Daniel is holding back on this. He understands that part of the appeal of Brunswick stew is the mystique of it.
When the stew is finally ready, I taste it in a foam cup. It is coral red in color and has a velvety texture, thick with chicken tenders sprinkled with beans, corn kernels, and undissolved potato chunks. The slow, long, lazy bubble of tomato, chicken and vegetables produced a mild flavor, the cayenne pepper a mild bite.
All morning the townspeople stopped by to ask when the stew would be ready. They smelled it all over the block. Daniel and Waller cook community stews twice, sometimes three times a month. Ever since news of this stew broke weeks ago (by old-fashioned word of mouth; no social media here), locals and even residents of Richmond an hour away have been ordering several pints. For days every gram of the 85 gallons was talked about. In fact, he is oversold. Daniel calls to see who can reduce the order.
Around 1:30 p.m., people go to their barracks. This one takes six, the other 10, another 22, at $7 a liter. I didn't know the etiquette for ordering ahead. I'm afraid I won't make it.
Daniel has already thought about it. Pour the stew from the pot into a plastic container. “Do you know what he saw today?” he says.
"You haven't seen everything yet," he says.
He hands me a bottle and I head back to the big city because I think I know more than I probably do.
Shahin will be participating in the Free Range Chat this afternoon:live.washingtonpost.comSiga Shahin on Twitter:@jimshain.
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How do I thicken my Brunswick stew? ›
However, if you've done gone and done something different, you can always thicken any soup or stew with cornstarch. Mix 2 tbs of cornstarch with 2 tbs of cool water. Stir well with a fork and add to the stew. Wait for a minute and if it isn't thick enough, repeat until it is.What pairs well with Brunswick stew? ›
I love serving Brunswick stew with homemade potato bread rolls, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, or crusty no-knead bread. Other perfectly Southern sides for this dish include hush puppies or a tossed salad. Either one is a surprisingly delightful pairing.What was Brunswick stew originally made with? ›
Originally it was small game such as squirrel, rabbit or possum meat, but chicken is most common today. Eastern North Carolina Brunswick Stew has potatoes, which thicken it considerably. Eastern Virginia Brunswick Stew tends to be thinner, with more tomato flavor.What is the difference between beef stew and Brunswick stew? ›
The difference between Brunswick stew and beef stew is very simple. Beef stew consists of beef, vegetables, tomato sauce, and some seasoning, while Brunswick stew has a very spicy flavor that comes from a combination of BBQ sauce and ketchup, and is made with beef, pork, and chicken.Is it better to thicken stew with flour or cornstarch? ›
Cornstarch will thicken stew similar to flour, but has the added benefit of being flavorless and won't cloud the liquid as much. It's also gluten-free but has to be added carefully to avoided gloppy lumps. One tablespoon cornstarch per cup of liquid will give you a medium-thick stew that's not overly viscous.What do I do if my stew is too watery? ›
Whisk a teaspoon of flour in a little cold water to make a slurry, then stir into the stew as it's cooking. Don't add dry flour directly to the stew as it may clump. After adding the slurry, bring the stew to boil. This will cook out the flour taste and allow the starch to swell.What state is famous for Brunswick stew? ›
Brunswick, Georgia, claims to be the place of origin for Brunswick stew. A twenty-five-gallon iron pot outside that coastal town bears a plaque declaring it to be the vessel in which this favorite southern food was first cooked in 1898.Is Brunswick stew good for diabetics? ›
Traditionally, Brunswick stew was made with small game meat, however, in recent years, chicken has become the go-to protein for this recipe. While this chicken Brunswick stew is a healthy meal for people with diabetes and on dialysis, it is higher in potassium, so you won't want to overindulge.Is Brunswick stew from Virginia? ›
Both Brunswick County, Virginia and the town of Brunswick in Georgia claim to have developed the original recipe for Brunswick stew, though some version of the meaty hunter's stew was likely made by American Indians long before either state was even a colony.What is the secret to tender stew meat? ›
The most important key to making stew meat tender is being sure to cook it for a long time. If you want super tender beef, you'll need to cook it on a low heat in a Dutch oven on the stove or a slow cooker for at least a few hours.
What makes stew more flavorful? ›
If it tastes off-balance, add some finishing flavors to bring it to the next level. Try adding soy sauce or Worcestershire for extra savory (or umami) flavor, a touch of honey or brown sugar for sweetness, lemon zest or vinegar for brightness or chili powder or smoked paprika for spice and depth.How do you get the sweetness out of Brunswick stew? ›
If your dish is too sweet, you can add acidity (lemon juice or vinegar) or a pinch of salt. These will help round out those sweet flavors.How do you make Brunswick stew less sweet? ›
If your food is too sweet...
Add an acid or seasonings such as lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegar; chopped fresh herbs, citrus zest, or a dash of cayenne for savory dishes, liqueur or instant espresso for sweet dishes.
The secret ingredient for richer beef stew
That's right, it's fruit chutney! Rosella's Fruit Chutney is thick and shiny, and balances out the flavours so that the rich and decadent sauce has you coming back for more, but it doesn't overpower the dish.
The three main thickening agents for gravies are flour, cornflour and arrowroot. The first two are normally used in savoury dishes while arrowroot tends to be used in sweet dishes – that said, arrowroot will work in a savoury dish as it has no flavour.How can I thicken my stew if I don't have cornstarch? ›
- Rice flour. Made from finely ground rice, rice flour replaces cornstarch in a 3:1 ratio.
- Arrowroot powder. Derived from the tropical arrowroot plant, this powder replaces cornstarch in a 2:1 ratio. ...
- Potato starch. ...
- Tapioca starch. ...
- Flaxseed gel. ...
- Xanthan gum. ...
- Guar gum.
Start by cooking your stew without the lid on for a bit longer—this will allow for more of the liquid to evaporate and let the stew reduce. (Cooking with a lid on traps the moisture inside instead of letting it cook off.)How can I thicken my stew without cornstarch? ›
A handful of uncooked rice. That's all folks, just a handful of white rice. Any kind will do: jasmine, basmati, short grain, long grain. When added to a brothy (or watery, even) soup, and left to simmer for 20-30 minutes, the rice breaks down, releasing its starch and thickening the liquid that it's cooking in.