Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago about my family’s annual tradition of making Brunswick stew. I hadn’t thought about those times in a while, but today while outside in the crisp air a slight whiff of wood smoke took me back…

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside tables of huge tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of corn and tomatoes 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 gave 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 focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who just happened to be my cousins.

From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on their swing set, Daddy on the tractor, or my grandmother, Nannie. She might be picking beans, shucking corn, or emptying a bucket of tomatoes onto on old metal table under the apple tree. 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 across the field. Daddy and the uncles gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. By the time we kids showed up the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama, and the aunts had readied the vegetables and cut up the meat.

For the next several hours we kids played – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between the kitchen and the stew boiling outside. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what seemed to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. How interesting 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.

I never paid attention to what went into the stew. Even today I have no idea what recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to swirl around the giant pot. I do remember timing seemed important and there was debate over several points: add 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 down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about the many family stews and how long it had actually been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked the kitchen cabinets. There was one can of store-bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but it won’t be as good as “real”. 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.

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 under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand and sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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76 Comments

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76 responses to “Stew Day

  1. Great evocation—makes me hungry! And nostalgic.

  2. I love this post & all the memories it brings back to me of my childhood in NC. We didn’t make stew like that but your post made me simply remember being a kid & the magnitude of things around me. It also made me conscious of how a smell or the hint of one can send us back into the past so quickly. That also happens with a song.

  3. Just delightful, even the oak leaf!

  4. So lovely…and I’m not sure why, but I loved the imagery of stirring with a boat oar. Maybe it’s because it conveys abundance and a large, lively gathering? Thank you for sharing. Sweeter than your sweet tea! 😉

  5. Reminds me of the fresh corn boils of my youth back in southern Illinois 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  6. Nice read, especially in today’s world of mostly self-contained, nuclear families

  7. Diane A. Perkins

    A warm bowl of Brunswick Stew with a yeast roll and sweet tea is the best comfort food. What a great memory and a wonderful family story. Thanks for sharing it. It takes a lot of willing hands to get the potatoes peeled and cut uniformly and to get the meat cut into bite size pieces. The paddle is for stirring but also for checking to see when the stew is thick enough. According to some experienced stew makers, when the paddle can stand straight up by itself in the middle of the pot of stew, then the stew is just thick enough.

  8. You were so blessed to grow up in such a loving and lively family atmosphere!

  9. donnamullen

    Love this!💌 isn’t it amazing how a simple sight or smells bursts forth so many hidden memories.

  10. Pearl Fredericksen

    What a heartwarming family memoir. The stew is the focal point, but it’s the togetherness and fun that really makes the story. Thanks for sharing.

  11. The company and the ‘togetherness’ of cooking is often the magic ingredient. I sometimes experience this when the family are with me over Christmas when we cook together in the kitchen.

  12. How much would it take to recreate a get together like that? It would never be as magical but it may be lovely.

  13. Indeed. Its fascinating how many of pur childhood memories revolve around food. My grandma made bread and I helped make butter. I think we were dog poor but she grew everything we needed in the eternal soup pot on the coal stove. Ah, now I have to remember to eat.

  14. Awwwn 😘 I ❤️ this story, makes me nostalgic. It’s sooo wonderful!!
    Some childhood memories could make me 😭 like we should turn back the clock.

  15. This Stew Day post evokes memories of my childhood in a village in the Chinese countryside. We Chinese have a Soup Day called labazhou on the eighth day of lunar December. It is a pot of soup of beans, rice, vegetables and meats. Though in a different nation, I sense the American Soup Day feel is so familiar. Thanks for the great post, Stuart.

  16. This story reminds me of similar family events down south, especially in summer. The vegetables my nannie grew in the garden were amazing, especially the Hanover tomatoes. Those are the best! I love your stories, Stu!

  17. Memories like that feed our souls.

  18. Just love your reminders of kinder, gentler times. Thank you.

  19. Sounds idyllic and impossible in today’s world. Be glad you were born when you were, surrounded by such love and family and bounty. Would that everyone knew had treasured memories.

  20. Similar to crawfish boils here in Louisiana. ^_^

  21. Pingback: Stew Day #FridayFinds #Reblogs #Inspiration – My Corner

  22. Beautiful memory….and makes me long for Thanksgiving week at Grandma’s house 💞💞💞

  23. masterkeyinterface

    Stuart, this is a sweet memory. Thank you for sharing.
    It reminds me of some of the lovely and difficult ‘things’ our family experienced in the early days, during the building of our ranch in the wilds of Northern BC.
    I must write about them. The care and keep on sharing.

  24. Sharon Eshler

    Lovely lovely lovely memories

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  25. I suspect there was no written recipe. Those sorts of stews happen organically – with whatever happens to be on hand. Always delicious because the fellowship makes it better

  26. Stuart,
    So good to have you back.

    So many of your reminisces of days gone by impels others to search back to a time of our youth when things were simpler and revered. A recipe for stew that could be mistaken for “Stone Soup” which itself required the involvement of a community as well if not a family. What simple things can draw so many together and thankfully blur the lines of division making us one. Stories like yours are more powerful than any legislation or court decree which so often fail to unify in a shared commonalty. You brought a thought forward from me when I was a boy. We lived in a project of many backgrounds. Each summer not far from our home was held an Italian fair. And on a warm summer night I’d sit on our front stoop with my dad and listen to the wonderful music and sounds from the festivities within earshot pressing him on when could we attend. Memories like that and your stories are as a road map back for those seeking an innocent era of peace and joy held in safe keeping deep within the hearts of common men and women.
    -Alan

  27. Thanks for the memories. I just wrote a similar memory about my grandmother’s corn pudding, which our family always serves at Thanksgiving. Funny how certain foods conjure up so many special family moments.

  28. Mary Jordan

    Lovely memories, well stated. Thank you.

  29. Love Stew Day, as I do any of your posts. We built a fire pit in our yard and still have to purchase the cast iron pot this year. I can’t wait to make stew in the pit. I’m here to tell you, our –well, not my, but — your family had it right. I’m adopting the tradition. I’ve yet to have grandchildren, but one day I will be serving up some amazing stew to those youngin’s from my precious fire pit. Thanks, Stuart, for the reminder.

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