Tuesday, June 26

The Origin Myth(s) of Brunswick Stew

From the sauce-splattered keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

 Last week I wrote about hash, the classic South Carolina barbecue side dish, so it seems only fitting this week to address Brunswick Stew, the staple side of North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.

Two different Brunswick Counties—one in Georgia and one in Virginia—claim to have originated the famous stew. The Georgia case includes a very physical piece of evidence: a historical monument outside the town of Brunswick with a 25-gallon iron pot on a stone base bearing the inscription: "In this pot the first Brunswick Stew was made on St. Simon Isle, July 2, 1898."

It's a nice touch, but by 1898, Brunswick stew had been served in Virginia for over half a century. It appears in newspaper accounts of Virginia barbecues as far back as 1849, when the Alexandria Gazette described it as "a genuine South-side dish, composed of squirrels, chicken, a little bacon, and corn and tomatoes, ad libitum."

Brunswick stew at a Georgia barbecue, 1898. Photo from Strand magazine.

Brunswick stew seems to have been created in the 1820s by James Matthews, a noted squirrel hunter (what a distinction!) in Brunswick County, VA. Matthews cooked his squirrels in water with bacon and onions until the flesh separated from the bones, which he skimmed out before finishing the stew with butter and breadcrumbs. After his death, Matthews was succeeded by a series of local stew masters, and over time they added tomato, onion, corn, and potatoes to the recipe. By the 1840s the stew was being served at barbecues throughout the state. It soon snuck into North Carolina and, eventually, to Georgia.

Sorry, Peach State. History is on the side of the Virginians on this one.

-Robert Moss