Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago. Since today is Labor Day, precisely the sort of cool, clear, late summer morning when we would make Brunswick stew, I wanted to put it out there again.

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from trucks, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside boxes of huge 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.

Mounds of 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 coming 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 and 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. 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 a gang of cousins. All gathered there under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

51 Comments

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51 responses to “Stew Day

  1. A real stew cannot in taste and flavour compete with a store-bought stew in a can.

  2. A dish.. any dish, is always best if made from scratch with fresh produce, time and care. It may be a “simple” meal but it’s so much better. If there are wonderful memories to go along it’s even better. Great story. Thanks for sharing

  3. I loved this story! I grew up in Southside Virginia, and I attended many a Brunswick Stew cookout. Though our family did not own the big pot or the oar, many of our friends did, and we were always invited to share the feast. They always sent us home with a mason jar or two of the leftover stew. How I miss those days…and that stew! We always ate ours with saltines.

  4. My college roommate’s family used to make their own apple butter. Decades on, now, I still remember its smokey tang — totally different from what I buy from the grocery store.

  5. I remember this story! I love it! It’s so wonderful you have such sweet memories!

  6. You were lucky to have grown up that way. What a nice way to use up the garden veggies and have a family meal together at the same time. It stirs up memories of Papa’s minestrone soup.

  7. Paulina Radzisauskas

    Great job, Stu!!! Love to read your writings

  8. That was such a beautiful fun story that you can only hear on the East Coast. Well, maybe other places as well. I would have loved to be a part of Stew Day. I love memories.

  9. My grandparents had a small garden. I remember tomatoes, green beans, white radishes and parsley. Nothing is better than fresh off the vine. We lived about 10 miles away that had an orchard but also all kinds of produce. We went regularly to get what whatever had come in season. Summer meals were always about whatever was fresh – and even in a pot on my grandma’s stove, it was the best eating. I’m blessed to have been allowed to ‘help’ in the kitchen and still make some of her specialties today. Nothing had a recipe, as I recall!

  10. Sounds idyllic – nothing like country life.

  11. Your stories always remind me of the importance of slowing down and just being! Thank you for sharing your memories!

  12. I could almost smell the wood smoke and hear the laughter of the cousins. What a magical childhood memory! I am past grieving for my total lack of cousins, because our children grew up in the same town with six first cousins. They are still close and keep up with each other through social media.

  13. In the fast-paced lives most people live today such activities are being lost: people tend to want their gratification ‘now’ so order in ready-made food, eat out, or use canned or frozen food. The sharing of food is the essence of sharing each other in a way that draws us together, creates bonds, and allows the freedom to move away, experiment, and to come back knowing that you will be accepted because you belong. By the sharing of food I include the preparation as well as sitting down to eat it whilst chatting or listening to others.

  14. I wanted to be there with you, full bowl of stew in one hand, roll and tea. Sounds yummy.

  15. RuthNulph

    We always loved it when our stops in Richmond were on the weekend of stew day. I brought the idea back to our camping club and we made it in a big open pot over a fire that cooked all day. It was a big success! I still make small batches of stew but not outside but in my kitchen. It will soon be time to make some. Thanks for reminding me and thanks for bringing back those wonderful memories of your grandparents and your aunts, uncles, and cousins.
    Ruth Nulph

  16. Those are awesome memories. I didn’t live surrounded by family, but I did spend most of my summers as a kid in the small community in which my father was born and raised and where many of his family remained. Almost everyone within walking distance of a small kid was either related to me or their relative was married into the family. This, like your upbringing, should be the way kids are raised, not in sterile communities where not only are there no relatives, but people don’t even know their neighbours.

    Thank you for sharing the stew story. It makes me want to make soup/stew (of which I make a lot of in winter), but it’s going to be a warm day. However, I have lots of vegetables in the garden, waiting to be dropped into a pot.

  17. Maybe it tasted so good because of all the love that went into making it.

  18. Love this time of year and your story brings back memories of my childhood on our dairy farm and fresh eggs and fresh vegetables. I have gathered the ingredients for my homemade stew made just the way my mother use to make it (minus the oar). Nothing tastes better than made from scratch good food. Thanks for the memories

  19. The pot we used to cook our meal held a flowering plant not an hour before we gathered to light the fire and pool our ingredients. Such a stew is called a pojtkie in South Africa after that pot. As a spur of the moment event, people brought along what they had – chicken, lamb, chunks of beef and whatever vegetables they found in their fridge. The men cooked always over an open fire. There were also lively discussions as to what should go in when. The secret, our cooks said, was not to touch the stew as the ingredients went in but to cook them in layers. (No oars here.) Halfway through, the inevitable bottle of beer was added to the stock. That miscellaneous meal was one of the best I have ever eaten. Maybe it was the beer, or the expertise of the cooks, or the friendship the meal celebrated. But other meals followed with the same people and none of them came up to this standard. Personally, I think it was whatever the flowering plant contributed to the evening that made it so special! Such wonderful happy memories. Thanks as ever, Stuart, for reminding me.

  20. Alan Malizia

    Stuart,
    I can, as I am sure others, identify with your post. My grandmother who was from Italy and spoke not a word of English communicated in her cooking. She made a fried potato that was crisp yet so moist and soft as you bit into it that it was to die for. It was the legend of the family. But beyond its treat to the senses it brings to mind those events which bind families. When any one asks what was her secret, as all family recipes seem to possess, no one could say for sure. But I think the secret is in the name itself: The “Family” recipe.

  21. I did enjoy reading your well written story taken from a happy memory you have. As I visualized your words they made it all come to life for me. Thank you.

  22. Hi there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Thank you

  23. You’re right to be skeptical. Store-bought stew in a can just cannot even be put in the same category of homemade stew. Real stew doesn’t even have recipes, imo. You just put in whatever you’ve got off the vine or in the pantry with some thickly chopped up meat and you’re good to go!

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