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