Tag Archives: vegetables

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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Frozen in Time

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

It’s a chest freezer actually, from the 1960s I think. Dirty white with spots of ancient rust and it makes a horrifying screech when the lid is opened. For decades it sat on the huge back porch of Nannie’s farmhouse, ran perfectly, and never skipped a beat.

When Nannie died, Daddy debated what to do with that old freezer. He feared moving it would cause it to stop running but he hauled it across the field to his own screened porch where it still runs perfectly and never skips a beat. Daddy is gone now too, but the freezer runs on.

That freezer has a lot of life in it, in more ways than one.

Every summer Nannie filled its frosty racks with butter beans and other garden goodies. I’d take the path to her house and hear the familiar screech of the lid as I got to the porch. Nannie would be comically bent over head first in the freezer, digging through frozen packages, surrounded by the cloud of cold “smoke” that puffed out as she stirred the air inside.

Over decades the freezer took on a life of its own and became more than a useful place to store food. It became the focal point of Nannie’s porch with its broad surface that made a handy place to leave things, do things, and grow things.

It was a fine spot for African violets and a Christmas cactus. In early spring Nannie started vegetable seeds in trays and lined them up along the top of the freezer. She’d laugh for causing herself extra work when she had to move them all just to get a package of frozen corn for supper.

A lot of life went on around that freezer.

Nannie kept small weigh scales on the freezer in case someone from church came by to get a pound of snaps. Quart baskets of blackberries we all picked sat on the freezer until someone came to buy them. A random green apple, a forgotten eggplant, or a pie Nannie made and meant to give to a friend might all be on the freezer.

If one aunt had coupons for another aunt, they were left on the freezer. If a visiting friend found a cousin’s toy army man under the swing, it was left on the freezer. If an uncle returned a borrowed tool, it was left on the freezer. If you carried something when you stopped by to see Nannie you could leave it on the freezer. On the way out you just picked it up from the freezer.

I stood at the freezer with my aunt Noody on several Thanksgivings as she cut up the turkey before families arrived. She’d spread the giant bird out on the freezer, plates to the left for light meat, plates to the right for dark. The broad surface made a perfect work area.

Nannie left bags of homemade rolls on the freezer for me to deliver to aunts across the field. On countless summer evenings the freezer held glasses of iced tea, ash trays, and random conversation pieces brought over for a night of family stories on the porch. Sometimes the top of the freezer was cleared, newspaper spread, and a watermelon cut up for whoever happened to be visiting.

A lot of life revolved around that freezer.

Today the old freezer still runs on Daddy’s screened porch. I looked at it a few weeks ago. Nothing sits on top anymore, nothing being done there, nothing growing there as in the old days. I lifted the lid and the familiar screech was as strong as ever, the icy “smoke” still swirled, but the frosty racks were mostly empty.

Mama’s health issues have prevented her from gardening and freezing the summer’s goodies. I saw a few iced over packages labeled in her handwriting, “Corn 2012”, but they’re old and should be thrown away.

For decades that freezer was the accidental center of a lot of what Nannie and her huge extended family did. The conversations it heard, the family meals it held, the cousins, babies, and babies of cousins who wanted a turn sitting on its broad top are too numerous to ponder.

It’s still running, but just like the last few freezer burned packages of corn inside maybe the old chest freezer itself should finally be thrown away. But who could do that? Not me.

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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