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