“Stew dogs” do it best
Sunday, September 23, 2018
There was a time when Brunswick stew was a restaurant favorite in eastern North Carolina, especially in barbecue restaurants.
I’m saddened to say that the quality of the stew in several popular eastern barbecue joints has been in a downward spiral during the past couple of decades. Without mentioning specifics, I can say that the towns of Wilson, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and Greenville are home to some of these eateries.
It just doesn’t seem quite right that relatively new barbecue restaurants in the Triangle area have stepped up and embraced a commitment to authentic Brunswick stew to balance the decline in portions of the coastal plain. But it’s true.
In any event, Brunswick stew never reached its zenith in restaurants anyway. Rural areas and small towns are where the dish really shines. There is no other traditional North Carolina food that evokes as vivid a mental image of folk sharing not only ingredients and the fellowship of the cooking task but also the delicious end product.
Cooking large batches of Brunswick stew is an important, periodic social event that’s also a top fundraiser for churches, law enforcement agencies, clubs, volunteer fire departments and other entities.
The veterans who oversee these stews — sometimes called “stew dogs” — tend to be firmly set in their ways when it comes to procedure. Personal and family recipes handed down from one generation to the next are stubbornly defended with great vehemence. Competing ways or claims of superiority are often scorned. Pride is at stake, you see.
In earlier years, Brunswick stew was routinely cooked for up to 10 hours in cast-iron pots heated by wood fires. Generations of young novices gained their experience by pushing wooden paddles through endless figure-eight patterns along the pot bottom until their arms and shoulders ached.
The pain of stirring, though, was nothing compared to the wrath incurred if one didn’t pay enough attention to the stirring and consequently “stuck the stew.” Smoke from the fire added significantly to the flavor of the stew, and it infused the clothing of the cooks with a smoky aroma that testified to their hard labor.
Today, the bulk of rural, eastern Brunswick stew may be cooked in aluminum or stainless pots over gas burners, but ingredients remain fairly unvarying. The commonly accepted ones are tomatoes, butter beans, corn, one or more types of meat and seasonings, while potatoes and onions are optional to some, required by others.
It is entirely acceptable and quite common to use only chicken as a meat, while some purists argue that Brunswick stew isn’t authentic unless it contains at least one other type. Some cooks add beef, others add pork and a few use all three proteins.
This is the point where people inevitably start asking me, “What about squirrel?” It’s true that in Brunswick County, Virginia, the man usually credited with inventing Brunswick stew around 1830 reportedly included squirrel in his first version. Squirrel was undoubtedly added for decades afterward, too.
But anyone tasked with assembling the ingredients and producing a large pot of stew would never get anywhere if they depended on harvesting and deboning enough of these bushy-tailed little scamperers. Squirrel meat in Brunswick stew is chiefly a countryside legend and is gigantically impractical: fuhggedaboutit.
I have learned by experience that it’s acceptable to include other vegetable ingredients such as finely grated cabbage, okra or sweet potatoes if — and it’s an important if — they are cooked down until they meld into a thick, background stock that adds flavor and depth while still showcasing the butter beans, corn and meat. It is not acceptable, in my view, to have green beans, stray green peas or chunks of carrots floating around as visible ingredients of Brunswick stew.
See, that sort of “use up all the leftovers” approach is why so much of the Brunswick stew in eastern city barbecue joints has become so unappetizing. Any stew worth buying and savoring will stay pretty close to the basics.
Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.