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How To > Food > Brunswick Stew

Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition
Article by Kathryn Coombs


Colleen Formby and Kathryn Coombs at Kathryn's house, "Cleydael" -- Brunswick stew
in the foreground

Providing period food for living history events can be challenging and expensive when there are quite a number of people to be fed. In this context, "made" dishes -- casseroles and stews of various sorts -- are a low cost and authentic option.

Brunswick stew is a traditional dish in Virginia dating to well before the Civil War. Ingredients are easy and inexpensive to procure, with chicken, tomatoes, lima beans and corn being the main ingredients. As the vegetables used could be "put up" for the winter, this also has the advantage of being an all-season dish.

The traditional Brunswick stew recipe calls for squirrel or a mixture of squirrel and chicken. If you are squeamish, or don't have a friendly squirrel hunter to provide you with little furry guys (awwww!!) chicken will do just fine.


History:

While Brunswick, North Carolina also claims authorship, the most commonly accepted provenance goes back to Brunswick County, Virginia in 1828

Brunwick stew, as the story goes, was invented by "Uncle" Jimmy Matthews, the manservant of a prominent Brunswick county landowner, Dr. Creed Haskins of "Mount Donum" on the Nottoway River. Dr. Haskins took several friends on a hunting expedition and his manservant came along as camp cook. The original version of Brunwick stew was simply squirrels with butter, onions, stale bread and seasonings. It proved a hit with the hunting expedition, so Dr. Haskins later had Jimmy Matthews make a larger batch for a political rally, as Dr. Haskins was a member of the General Assembly. It was perhaps at this time that the vegetables were added.

The mixture of corn, lima beans and fowl has its roots in the foodways of Native Americans in the region and this may have influenced the development of the Brunswick stew recipe. One of the traditional ways of preparing wild turkey was in a stew with corn and lima beans. The combination of lima beans and corn called "succotash" comes from the native Americans of the various Algonkian related tribes who populated the eastern seaboard from New England to North Carolina. Succotash is a Narraganset (Algonkian) word for squash, however, not for corn or beans. One theory as to the origins of the term "succotash" to mean corn with limabeans is that it probably derives from "msickquatash," a Narraganset Indian word meaning "ear of corn."

Over the years, the basic Brunswick stew recipe has been adapted and developed by various cooks. However, a number of elements are constant, and are required in the stew cooking competition held in Brunwick County each year: Hens or Chickens, Fatback, Potatoes, Onions, Tomatoes, Butterbeans (Limas), Corn, Butter, Salt, Black Pepper, Red Pepper, Sugar. They also allow one additional thickening ingredient. My family's traditional recipe calls for the addition of okra, which I have seen in several other recipes, but this might be a 20th century variation. Another nice addition that is traditional in my family is to add a teaspoon of sherry immediately before serving. Sherry as a condiment in soups can be dated to the 18th century, so I think this is an acceptable "fudge" even if it can't be documented to Brunswick stew per se.

Recipes:

I have not yet had time to make an exhaustive search for Brunswick stew recipes from our era and have so far been limited to resources online and my own rather paltry collection of cookbooks. In this somewhat cursory initial research, the earliest written recipes I have been able to find for Brunswick stew so far have been from Marion Cabell Tyree's book Housekeeping in Old Virginia . While this book is post-War, published in 1878, it was several years in the making and is a compilation of recipes contributed by prominent women across Virginia, most of whom were middle aged and older and had reached adulthood before the Civil War, including a number of wives and widows of Confederate officers. Although Mrs. Robert E. Lee died four years before the publication date, she contributed a few recipes, as did her daughter Mildred.

Although the book was published 13 years after the War, I believe it is a valid resource for the following reasons: (1) most of the recipes come from older citizens, (2) many of the recipes were collected right after the War and (3) the purpose of the book was to rally a sense of renewed pride in Virginia's culinary heritage and culture in the aftermath of defeat and in the midst of Reconstruction. For this reason, it featured recipes that were already considered "traditional" by the 1870s.

Moreover, because the book gives three different variations of Brunswick stew, this reinforces the likelihood that this was a well-known dish across the Commonwealth and considered "traditional", at least by the third quarter of the 19th century and is therefore a valid thing to serve in portraying the 1860's. Interestingly, the first recipe calls for beef rather than chicken or squirrel.

19th Century Recipes:

Brunswick Stew #1 (Housekeeping in Old Virginia)

Shank of beef
Loaf of bread 
1 quart potatoes cooked and mashed
1 quart cooked butter beans
1-quart raw corn
1 1/2 quart raw tomatoes peeled and chopped

Put the shank on as for soup at the earliest possible hour; then take the shank out of the soup and shred and cut the meat as fine as you can, carefully taking out bone and gristle, and then return to the soup pot and add all of the vegetables and the bread. Season with salt and pepper to the taste; and when ready to serve, drop into the tureen two or three teaspoonfuls of butter.

Brunswick Stew #2 (Housekeeping in Old Virginia)

About four hours before dinner, put on two or three slices of bacon, two squirrels or chickens, one onion sliced, in one-gallon water. Stew some time, then add one quart peeled tomatoes, two ears of grated corn, three Irish potatoes sliced, and one-handful butter beans, and part pod of red pepper. Stew altogether about one hour till you can take out the bones. When done, put in one teaspoonful bread crumbs and one large spoonful butter.

Brunswick Stew #3 (Housekeeping in Old Virginia)

Take two chickens or three or four squirrels, let them boil in water. Cook one-pint butter beans, and one-quart tomatoes; cook with the meat. When done, add one dozen ears corn, one dozen large tomatoes, and one-pound butter. Take out the chicken, cut it into small pieces and put back; cook until it is well done and thick enough to be eaten with a fork. Season with pepper and salt.

The Official Recipe:

The official Brunswick County, Virginia stew recipe is that which was served at a proclamation ceremony at the Virginia State Capitol in 1988. It is scaled to feed 600 people -- potentially useful if one were providing the catering for an entire event (no thanks!!) 

Brunswick Stew Proclamation Recipe -- Serves 600

1 round box-26oz. salt
18 gallons butterbeans
18 gallons tomatoes
12 gallons corn
210 lbs chicken
12 lbs white meat, ground
12 lbs butter
potatoes
100lbs onions
4 oz red pepper
4 oz black pepper

Directions: Put 210 lbs. of chicken in pot, cover with water and boil; add onions and potatoes, then add tomatoes and stir well at all times, then add butterbeans and seasonings. Continue cooking and add corn after cooking about 6 hours, and let corn cook for 30 minutes and turn heat off and continue stirring until served.

My Recipe:

Feeds about 12 -15 or so people, depending on how hungry they are and how much chicken you add. This recipe works on either an open fire or modern stove. All measurements are approximate because I'm not a professional recipe writer and I just tend to improvise as I go along, like most traditional cooks do. The main point is to keep working at it until it looks and tastes right...

2 chickens cut up, or (easier to pick) equivalent amount of chicken meat in breast and thigh pieces
2 medium onions
2-3 large cans of whole tomatoes
2-3 cans of corn (NOT cream style -- can be either yellow corn or a mixture of yellow and white)
2-3 cans of baby lima beans or butterbeans
3-5 potatoes, diced
Optional: 1-2 cans of sliced okra (Luck's is the best)
Chicken stock cubes or essence, just in case
Salt / black pepper / red pepper
Butter
Breadcrumbs or flour to thicken
bottle of medium sherry (as a condiment, or for snakebite)

Put your chicken in a large cast iron pot with more than sufficient water to cover and a bit of salt to make the water boil faster. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and let it simmer. Check frequently to make sure the water hasn't all boiled away. When the chicken is falling away from the bone, remove the pot from the fire, remove the chicken pieces from the stock, and set them on plates or in another pot to cool. When they are cool, pick the meat from the bones and return meat to the pot - Save the bones for making more stock if you're frugal.

Dice your potatoes and add them to the pot with the chicken and stock. Open your cans of tomatoes and pour the liquid into the pot, then roughly chop / break up the tomatoes in the can before adding them to the pot too.

While this is cooking, dice your onions and put them in a skillet, pan, or dutch oven with a couple of egg-shaped pieces of butter. Saute until they become transparent, then add to the pot.

Open your cans of corn, butter beans (or limas) and okra (if desired) and add to the pot. Add black pepper, red pepper to taste. If the stock doesn't taste chickeny enough, you might want to add some chicken stock essence or cubes at this stage. Refrain from adding extra salt until you've determined whether chicken stock is needed, as stock cubes are salty.

Let this whole mess simmer for a fairly long time, stirring it regularly to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot (particularly crucial with open hearth or campfire cooking). When you're getting ready to serve it, check that it's thick enough. If you're going to serve it on flat plates rather than in bowls, you might need to thicken it further, depending on whether you used okra and on how many potatoes were used. A traditional option is to add breadcrumbs. Perhaps an easier way is to add flour by making a roux or gravy. To do this, take the pot you used for the onions with the remaining butter still in the bottom. Add more butter or bacon grease and heat. Add white flour until sufficient to make a stiff paste and cook this until it is a light medium brown. Ladle out broth from the stewpot and add gradually to the paste, stirring or whisking furiously so that it doesn't get lumpy. Stir this into the pot with the stew thoroughly. If it's still not thick enough, repeat the process.

Taste the stew and adjust seasonings if needed, then serve in bowls or plates, with a half teaspoon of medium sherry, if desired, added as a condiment immediately prior to eating.

BONUS: If you want to have some fun, tell people it contains squirrel and watch their faces... ;-D