It’s every legislator’s favorite time of year. And no, we’re not talking about the start of the General Assembly session. We’re talking about stew.
Brunswick stew, that is.
Every fourth Wednesday in January, a.k.a. “Brunswick Stew Day,” legislators flock to the Capitol grounds like children to their presents on Christmas Day, eager to sate their stewy desires before the 80-gallon cast-iron pot runs out.
Which usually happens in two hours, tops.
The Assembly officially established Brunswick Stew Day on the Capitol grounds in 2002 by passing House Joint Resolution 2. According to the bill summary, however, Brunswick County has been the birthplace of the “gastronomic miracle known as Brunswick Stew” since 1988.
The annual event features the first-place winner — beknighted as the Stewmaster — from the Taste of Brunswick Festival held every October in Brunswick County, which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year.
Monitored by the Brunswick Stewmasters’ Association – yes, that is a thing – 26 teams cooked-off for the crown last October with stewmaster Clark Bennett coming out on top. Bobby Conner, an associate with Brunswick County Tourism, said teams often arrive at 6 p.m. the night before the festival to make sure their stews are ready by morning.
He added that when time comes for the reigning stewmaster to travel to Richmond, they’ll usually start setting up on the Capitol grounds late Tuesday night.
No two stews are the same, but there are a few staple ingredients that just about every variation of Brunswick Stew includes: chicken (though the original recipe called for squirrel), butter beans, corn and vegetables.
But the secret sauce is… Well, the sauce. More specifically, the spices.
“I’ve met some [stewmaster’s] children who don’t even know what spices they use,” Conner said, explaining that most stewmasters will mix their spices in advance and bring the concoction to the festival in a labelless container so that other people “can’t be watching what they’re putting the stew.”
There are a few laws of the land a stewmaster must live by before being crowned king or queen of Brunswick Stew:
- Stewmasters must cook and prepare all ingredients on-site, though bringing pre-cut vegetables is allowed.
- Stewmasters cannot sell their stew until it has been taken to the judges. After that, it’s free for all.
- Certain ingredients must be used, including chicken, butter beans and corn.
- Wild game (i.e. rabbit and squirrel) cannot be used in place of chicken. However, there are no rules against either animal being added in.
But how does one determine which stew is “best” when taste is so subjective? Luckily for the judges, they are provided with certain statutory guidelines:
- Color (this can range from dark red to light grey)
- Density (thicker is better)
- Ingredients used (chicken, beans, corn, etc.)
- Taste (this is more of a personal preference)
Brunswick County has dubbed itself “The Original Home of Brunswick Stew,” a chide to the town of Brunswick, Georgia, whose state legislature also issued a proclamation claiming the stew originated there in 1989.
To back their claim, Georgians point to a plaque on a 25-gallon stew pot dating to 1898 on St. Simons Island, just outside Brunswick. This historic pot, they say, produced the very first incarnation of the famous stew.
Virginians can date the origin of Brunswick Stew back even further.
In 1828, then Del. Creed Haskins and a group of friends were on a hunting trip in Brunswick County. Their chef, a slave named Jimmy Matthews, concocted a thick, rich squirrel stew, slow-simmered in a large iron pot with butter, bacon, onions and stale bread.
Alas, it does appear that there is some chicanery when it comes to deciding the true origin of this regional delicacy. In “Southern Food,” John Egerton theorizes that the stew was probably being made by American Indians before either of the two states were even colonies.
The true origins will likely be settled in court some day.
Either way, Brunswick, North Carolina, doesn’t have much to say on the matter.