Stew Day

My Sunday morning walk took me by the local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to other vendors arriving to set up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out dozens of ears of corn alongside boxes of huge red tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market display. The mounds of our homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins. From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke wafting through my bedroom window from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids. A cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek! By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points. Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Since making homemade ice cream was a separate family event unto itself, Nannie had usually made blackberry roll for dessert instead, having picked the blackberries in the pasture herself. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and the rest of my extended family. We were gathered there under a tree, bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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57 Comments

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57 responses to “Stew Day

  1. Reminds me some of Wendell Berry. Keep up with the writing!

  2. A delicious read! Love “the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews memorable.”

  3. I can taste the stew! Thank you. I didn’t have the pleasure of a farm raised childhood and have spent some moments envying those who did.

  4. What a fascinating childhood! I could imagine all the details of stew day from your story. Blessings to you, Stuart…

  5. A few tears in my eyes here. The good old days, and why did the menfolk always make the stew. What kind of “meat” did they use? Squirrel?

    • I think the very early traditional recipes DID say to use squirrel, or rabbit maybe. No thanks! We used chicken.

      • Yeah, allegedly it’s better with squirrel or rabbit. I think I have had it with both but then the men were making it so who knows what they put in it. Man I would love to have some good Brunswick stew RIGHT NOW, even on this hot summer day!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your memories, reading about Stew Day made my day more special!

  7. Love this, brought back so many of my own memories! Wonderful writing Stuart! Can’t wait for your next post…

  8. Forwarding this post right to my husband, a North Carolina boy, who taught me about the wonders of Brunswick Stew. Lovely piece.

    • Great! And ask him what sort of meat they used in theirs? I think (hope) that my family only used chicken, but it’s funny that the norm seems to be the older men were always in charge of ingredients…

  9. This was wonderful! What a gift, this morning. You have a great gift of offering story.

  10. Loved this piece. I am from the Shenandoah Valley in Va. and my grandma was from Hendersonville, NC. I relate to your upbringing and miss a lot about my childhood days in Ft. Valley, Va. I read this piece with pure joy in my heart. Thank you for putting words to my memories.

    • Thank you for such a nice comment. I’m from RIchmond, Va and although where I grew up (my parents still live in the same house) now falls within the actual city limits, it didn’t always. I was born in the ’60s, so that was far enough back for things to be very different there.

  11. Oh what a marvellous blog post ~ my mouth is watering now so I am off to put the oven on! sadly no stew though x

  12. This is Uncomfortably Honest’s husband. Love the piece, nice craft. And of course you are dead on, the “real” kind of stew is flavored with family, and time spent in anticipation, and the smell of wood smoke, and squeal of cousins chasing each other.

    And I have have had both squirrel and chicken/pork (which is what my mom used). Squirrel is a great choice, but hard to come by unless you hunt. And frankly, I think chicken makes a better stew myself, though I am sure I have friends who would say differently.

    • Thanks for the input! I’ve never eaten squirrel or rabbit – that I was aware of – but if I had to eat either I think a stew would be the best way to try. I don’t want to identify anything! I know older people in my family have talked about squirrel and rabbit both, and said they were delicious!

  13. The best memories are those when we’re all together, sharing something.
    It’s just like those summers that never seemed to end…
    Another nice memory you’ve shared with us.

    Have you got any more snake stories/Carol stories up your sleeve?

  14. Where I grew up I have plenty of snake stories to draw from! Carol was in the post before this one, in case you didn’t see it? A trip a few of us took to the Bahamas. All her idea too!

  15. My childhood was nothing close to that described in your blog and reading it was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell picture. I can’t even imagine growing up like that, how absolutely Wonderful!

  16. In my book that was a perfect childhood. I lived my early years on the farm and loved it. I don’t remember my granny making stew but I remember her fresh vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, fried pies and all that homemade ice cream made under a large oak tree. This was a great read…loved it!

  17. kissysmom

    Marvelous story! Reminds me of applebutter day during my childhood. (Perhaps my parents borrowed that huge copper stew pot and the boat oar for stirring!) Seems to me that the women did all the cutting, washing, etc, while the men enjoyed talking & stirring. πŸ˜‰

  18. What a treasure your childhood was!! Thank you for gifting us with a happy walk down memory lane. Funny how one little scene can trigger so much. Loved it!

  19. kim

    Food always tastes better when we are surrounded by loving others. Beautiful story of a family tradition.

  20. pi314chron

    Stu — Very nicely written! bravo! I hereby dub that wonderful stew “The Immaculate Concoction!” Thanks for sharing your memories with us. πŸ™‚

    • Mmm fresh garden vegetables made into stew… Sounds delicious.

      You are a fabulous writer. Even though I’ve just started following your blog, I love it already! Looking forward to the next post.

  21. Sig

    Never had Brunswick stew – but I’ll be looking for a recipe now!

  22. I’m curious now. This would be worth a try!

  23. I enjoyed reading this post but now I am hungry for stew!! πŸ™‚

  24. Having been lucky enough to have real Brunswick stew cooked in a huge cast iron pot I can never have the canned sort…I refuse to sully the memory πŸ™‚

  25. I don’t envy your talent…I just enjoy the lovely pictures your words paint in my heart!

  26. Excellent story! I smiled and laughed as I read it. I saw the entire scene in my head and I am jealous that I didn’t grow up there! You are blessed, Stewart. Or should I call you, “Stew?” πŸ™‚

  27. delightful read, Stuart, I think the company must have added a flavour to the taste too πŸ™‚
    groetjes, Francina

  28. As a kid we had a large garden in our backyard. This piece brought back the memory of picking vegetables in hot summer evenings. Then watching as my mother worked ober a hot stove to can them for winter. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Stuart…Wonderful!!
    You were truly fortunate to grow up surrounded by a family working together and enjoying each other. Pity the kids growing up today without such wonderful family experiences…

  30. Oh Stuart that was wonderful. You made me curious as to what this Stew was. I looked it up online. I’m from New Zealand so I don’t know such things but the memories you have of your stew on the farm brought back memories for me growing up with my Hangi’s. I miss them so much living in the UK. Next time I go home I’m gonna ask if we can have one. I have fond memories of my Nanna and Whanua (family) having a hangi. maori families are extended to cousins and Aunties, Uncles etc…so our gatherings were always large, so you would have to have entire pigs and half a cow down in the stone pit. The men were the only ones allowed to do the Hangi (pronounced Hung-ee), the women would have to stop us kids from chasing the smell of the cooking food. Unfortunately for us it would take a full day having started the pit at about 5am for the food to be cooked but when it was ready we would line up, all 6000 of us (well when your a starving kid it seemed like 6000 but was only about 45 lol) plates in hand. Our Rewana bread in hand to soak up the juices. Oh the memories. Sadly for me there is no can in the world that does a hangi. I hope you enjoyed your soup in a can non the less. I love how a sound or smell can trigger and entire childhood memory. Just readings yours, made me think of mine. And I hadn’t thought of that for many years so for that I thank you xoxox

    • What a fun comment! You should blog about hangis! I’d love to hear about that whole experience. I’ve been to pig roasts before, but nothing on the scale you describe. It’s been really fun to hear other people’s memories after they’ve read this. Very fun. (and I did open that can of store bought Brunswick stew last night but it only took one look for me to know I didn’t want it. Especially not after talking about the “real” stuff all day!)

  31. Lovely, lovely story. Food is always better when surround by love and laughter. πŸ™‚

  32. Reminds of the novel I just finished: Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter. Growing up on a farm truly must have been a blessing! Thanks for stopping by πŸ˜‰

  33. I too grew up on a farm surrounded by Nannie, Aunts, Uncles and cousins – in Africa in my case – thanks for the memories!
    David

  34. What a beautiful story.I think your growing up days and my own had a lot in common,We both has large extended families who flavoured every part of our lives with love.

  35. That sounds that such a fantastic, idealic childhood! I’m happy for you to have been able to experience that.

  36. DianeAP

    I’ve enjoyed all your posts, and this is one of my favorites. It brought back lots of memories.

  37. Katie Prescott Beasley

    Oh my goodness. I love this. My husband grew up in rural Southern Illinois and had a childhood like this. He almost seems grieved to hear me talk about my childhood in suburban Houston. He knows he’s got better stories! I have a preference for big family holidays in Illinois with all the cousins and the superb country cooking.

  38. Diane

    Yes, yes, yes to you Stuart. A super rendition of the details of our youth and so full of vivid images….with homage to all the senses. Thanks to you for helping us remember. It was a special time. Diane

  39. This is a colorful, beautiful memoir. Life’s best moments so often happen around food, and so many good memories can come back with just one familiar waft reaching your nose.

  40. I made some homemade stew today! Your childhood sounds fantastic by the way. Thanks for writing, it is easy to read and flows smooth as butter.

    Where are your family now though? Do you have reunions?

  41. That was wonderful, enough to make all of us who didn’t have that kind of family life jealous.

  42. Hey Love the image. I remember by Grandparents plot of land here in California and the huge garden they would plant. For me it was the Uncles after the deer hunt with the deer hanging from the trees being dressed. And the huge the huge feasts that would follow. Thanks for liking my post over at Truth and Passion. I will be back to read more Stuart.

  43. What a lovely way to say “thank you.” I hope your friends and relatives have the chance to read this.

  44. Ruth Nulph

    Stu I remember our visits to Richmond and the days that Brunswick stew was being made. I took the recipe back to PA and as campers shared it with our camping club. In the fall we would make it in a big pot over the campfire. Everyone would bring some of the ingredients to add to the pot. This blog brought back memories of our great visits with the Perkins clan and the great fellowship as well as delicious food! Aunt Jean’s blackberry cobbler wea the best!

  45. I love this so much. You stirred in an abundance of ingredients above and beyond the tomatoes, corn, and butter beans. Takes me back to stews I attended, and to time at my grandparents’ farm, times being The Kids eluding supervision, times playing outside, times sharing an annual family feast. Keep shucking stories — I’ve joined the circle awaiting the next batch.

  46. Great story! I enjoyed reading this very much and your memories of making Brunswick stew. Those were the “good old days” for sure. Don’t you wish we could go back and visit some of those times and places maybe for a day or two?

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