By Eric Kim, The New York Times

Everyone loves Stewie.

Standing at 5 feet 8 inches tall — 7 feet, if you count the wooden paddle coming out of his head — Stewie is the official mascot of Brunswick County, Virginia. A smiley cast-iron pot, he’s filled with Brunswick stew, the motley mix of shredded meat with the “Virginia trinity” of tomatoes, corn and butter beans.

Dixie Walker, tourism coordinator for the county, designed Stewie a few years ago and occasionally wears the costume. This month, she donned the Stewie suit once more for the 25th annual Taste of Brunswick Festival in Lawrenceville, Virginia, the Brunswick County town where stew masters from across the country competed for the honor of best stew. One goal of the festival — and of Stewie — is to spread the word about Brunswick stew and the county that shares its name.

If there’s any American dish that’s due for a national revival, it’s Brunswick stew. Thrifty and soul-warming, this hearty Southern staple is savory, sweet, tangy, familiar yet surprising and, most important, hot. And the thing is, you don’t have to be in Brunswick County to enjoy it — you can make it wherever home is for you.

In his 1972 book “American Cookery,” chef and television personality James Beard called Brunswick stew “one of the most famous of American dishes.” It was once served to presidents (a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s) and featured in countless cookbooks, including 1879’s “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” and the first edition of “Joy of Cooking,” published in 1931.

With its blend of slow-cooked meat and vegetables, its comforting mellowness, Brunswick stew is something everyone can use a little of right now. But it’s also a reminder of our national past: a regional dish that tells the story of America — of its resourcefulness, its land and a stewing history that preceded the country’s formation.

In “Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition,” Joseph R. Haynes wrote about how the Assiniboine, Indigenous Americans from the Northern Great Plains, boiled water in taut, hide-lined holes in the ground to make soups and stews. This stew, like many in the United States today, owes so much to such traditions, in addition to culinary influences from Africa and Europe.

According to local historians, in 1828, James Matthews, a Black camp cook, accompanied Dr. Creed Haskins and his friends on a hunting trip in Brunswick County and stewed the squirrels that they caught. A 1988 Virginia General Assembly proclamation supports this story as the true origin of the dish (though other Brunswicks, including ones in North Carolina, Maine and especially Georgia, might disagree).

In Brunswick County, Virginia, the stew is often the main event, maybe served with a side of cornbread. But in Brunswick, Georgia, it plays a supporting role and is offered as a side dish to meat on barbecue restaurant menus. (Humorist and Georgia native Roy Blount Jr. is quoted as saying, “Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.”)

Historically, the Georgia version includes barbecue sauce and even bottled ketchup. The 1928 cookbook “Southern Cooking,” by Mrs. S.R. Dull, a popular Atlanta Journal columnist, features two Brunswick stew recipes that call for an entire bottle of “catsup.” To this day, a vinegary sharpness runs through many iterations.

Clyde Eacho doesn’t add ketchup to his multiple-award-winning Brunswick stew, which he cooks in a giant cauldron outside his restaurant the Clubhouse Grill in Lawrenceville, Virginia. There’s more of a tomato base in the Virginian versions than the Georgian ones, said Eacho, 60, but “no pot is the same.” Even from his own hands, the stew changes from batch to batch, which is why he tastes as he goes and gives each pot what it needs. More spice from Texas Pete, maybe, or an extra handful of secret spices.

Perhaps most notable are the potatoes, which Eacho adds in big chunks. As they are stirred into the stew over multiple hours, their edges break down and become fuzzy, thickening the broth while cooking through to a wonderful texture that might be the platonic ideal of a stewed spud.

In a tender poem titled “The Tryst,” Virginian poet John Bannister Tabb wrote about how neither an underground potato nor an above-ground tomato “suspected a mutual love / Till they met in Brunswick stew.” There is an alchemy to the way a stew’s disparate ingredients slowly come together over a flame, ending not like a homogeneous purée but like a mosaic. Each ingredient should remain distinct but melded at the edges, Eacho said. That’s what makes a good pot.

And each pot should yield a lot. A true stew master measures Brunswick stew in quarts. To get an idea of the scale of some older recipes, envision the 80 hens Patricia Newcomb’s family used to acquire to start a pot. These 100-gallon cauldrons were “ginormous,” she said. “Huge.”

Newcomb, 71, a Brunswick County native who now lives in northern Virginia, remembers the way her father and all the men in the community would cook the stew outside, using vegetables from their garden and the game they hunted that day. It was a communal stew, the answer to some of life’s problems (though not all). Whenever someone was in need, for instance, neighbors would gather to make a big pot of Brunswick stew and sell quarts of it to raise money for that person.

Though Newcomb’s family no longer stews 80 hens, they have shared her most prized recipe, her Brunswick stew, in a YouTube video made by her son Jerry Newcomb, 52. Patricia Newcomb got the handwritten recipe from her brother and, over the years, has reworked it to fit her taste — and successfully scaled it down for her family. “I cut it in half. And then I cut that in half,” she said. “I kept cutting it in half.”

You don’t need to be from any of the Brunswicks to make Brunswick stew. You just need the Virginia trinity — tomatoes, corn and butter beans. You could hunt for squirrels or game and stew them the old way. Or you can use store-bought chicken, which is what most people do today (though some stew masters throw in beef chuck or pork shoulder, as well, for flavor and fat). The ingredients used now are common and relatively inexpensive at any grocery store across the United States.

It’s said that a Brunswick stew is done cooking when the stirring paddle can stand upright in the pot without a stew master touching it. At home, the rules are different. In the calm of a long weekend, there’s great joy in stewing away until you can taste the richness of the land, all in one pot.

Brunswick Stew

By Eric Kim

Few American dishes are more comforting than Brunswick stew, a motley mix of tomatoes, corn, beans and shredded meat. Chicken is most commonly used today, though some stew experts throw in beef chuck or pork shoulder for flavor and fat (or they prepare it in the old way, using game meat such as squirrel and rabbit). Both Brunswick County, Virginia, and Brunswick, Georgia, lay claim to this hearty fall stew. This version borrows from the sweet and savory Virginian tradition. Thickened with potatoes, the stew tastes great on its own, alongside a hunk of cornbread or with a sleeve of saltine crackers.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Total time: 2 1/2 hours

Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 2 large yellow onions, diced
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 4 dried or fresh bay leaves
  • 4 teaspoons celery seeds
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
  • 3 pounds plum tomatoes, diced
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 teaspoons sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each cut in half
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen shelled lima beans

Preparation

1. Heat a large Dutch oven or soup pot over medium-high. Add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, translucent and starting to brown at the edges, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the bay leaves, celery seeds and cayenne, and cook until fragrant, just a few seconds.

2. Add the tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce and sugar, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are softened and much of their liquid has released, 7 to 9 minutes.

3. Stir in the potatoes and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the stew thickens slightly and the potatoes are falling apart, about 1 hour. Using the back of a spoon, gently crush most of the potatoes against the side of the pot.

4. Add the chicken, corn and lima beans. Continue simmering, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is soft and easily shreddable, about 1 hour.

5. Remove the chicken from the pot, shred with two forks and return to the pot. (Alternatively, you can leave the chicken pieces whole; large chunks of stewed thigh meat taste delicious here.)

6. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, cayenne and sugar as desired. Serve immediately or refrigerate in airtight containers for up to 4 days. You also can freeze it for up to 4 months before thawing and reheating.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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