Where was Brunswick Stew, that venerable, spicy, delicious concoction of meat, tomato, butterbeans, and corn, created? Several places claim it.
In front of the Farmers Market at Mary Ross Waterfront Park in Brunswick, Georgia, an iron cauldron sits atop an aged stone pedestal engraved tombstone-like with these exact words, “In this pot the first Brunswick Stew was made on St Simon Island, July 2 1898.” That sure seems like a clear ownership declaration regarding the hunter’s stew that once comprised boiled squirrel — or possum – with hot peppers and local vegetables.
Unfortunately, another memorial pot has been found just outside Brunswick, in a rest area off I-95 southbound, atop another pedestal. Its plaque states, in part, that the “… first Brunswick stew was made here in the Brunswick-Golden Isles area in early colonial days.” Hmmm.
More confusing still, there were reports published in Virginia prior to the Civil War of a dish called Brunswick Stew, including an 1855 account in the Petersburg Intelligencer citing the stew’s origin as Brunswick County, Virginia. Articles in the 1880s specifically attributed the dish’s creation, in 1828, six decades earlier, to one James Matthews, of Brunswick County. Mathews was an enslaved African American cook who worked for a Virginia state legislator. Mathews reportedly first prepared his squirrel stew outdoors while camp cook for that gentleman and his hunting party. In 1988, the Virginia General Assembly decreed Brunswick County, VA, as the home of Brunswick Stew, tracing their claim back to that 1828 creation story.
It’s even murkier for Georgians still wanting to own the stew, now made with chicken or pork, having long shed its humble squirrel origins. A recent writer for Southern Living located a Georgia newspaper ad from 1871 for one Med Henderson’s saloon in Savannah promoting as a lunch special, “Old Virginia Brunswick Stew.” Ouch!
Something the conflicting claims have in common, aside from the need for a large pinch of salt, is the name “Brunswick.” That relates to our shared colonial history.
Brunswick is the anglicized name for Braunschweig, in the former North German Duchy of Braunschweig-Lunëburg. It was the ancestral home of the Hanoverian monarchs who ruled Great Britain, starting with King George I in 1714. Brunswick County, in Virginia, was so named during George I’s reign in honor of his birthplace. In 1771, in Georgia (which had been named for George II, who had granted the royal charter to General Oglethorpe), the former “Plug Point” on the southern coast was redesigned and renamed “Town of Brunswick” in honor of the now-reigning King George III’s ancestral home. That third Hanoverian King George, pejoratively called “German George” despite three generations away from Braunschweig-Lunëburg, was the one who lost the American Colonies in the Revolution. Altogether, under the various early Hanoverians “Brunswick” became a place name in six of the 13 original colonies plus an entire Canadian maritime province.
But back to Brunswick Stew. Regardless of where it originated, in its evolved form it is a thick, fragrant, and satisfying mixture of well-cooked chicken and/or pork, hot peppers, and colorful vegetables. The Virginia and Georgia versions vary, but locally each cook makes his or her stew differently anyway. The stew is typically sold now at barbecue restaurants, mostly as a side dish, along with the beans, mac and cheese, and coleslaw. Unfortunately, at many of these restaurants Brunswick Stew is just a mixture of their already-barbecued meat, tomatoes, vegetables and their regular barbecue sauce, rather than an exciting dish in its own right.
Here’s my version of Brunswick Stew, from above the geographic and culinary fray. Although I’ve lived in Georgia for many decades, I’m not originally from either here or Virginia, or for that matter from North Carolina, whose own Brunswick has tried to claim the stew.
The cooking method is simplified from the earlier tedium of slow simmering meat on the bone. I prefer chicken to the pork that is used, entirely or in part, in the Georgia version of the stew. And the okra sometimes employed in Georgia I leave out. My seasonings include ingredients typical in barbecue sauces, but no actual barbecue sauce. The stew is gluten-free, unless the Worcestershire sauce used contains wheat or soy sauce (check the ingredients if gluten is an issue).
The recipe makes several quarts, enough to eat with family and friends, with perhaps some left to enjoy at a later meal. Leftover stew can also be frozen. Serve Brunswick Stew in large soup bowls, accompanied by corn bread or biscuits. Offer bottled hot sauce, which diners can add to their stew if they wish. And a fresh salad is always nice.
Brunswick Stew, Tim’s Version
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
- A little oil for frying
- 1 medium-large onion
- 3-inch piece of celery
- 2 medium-large jalapeño peppers (including seeds)
- 2 quarts water or water plus part chicken broth
- 1 large or 2 medium potatoes (red or golden preferred over russet)
- 2 tablespoons Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 1 (12-ounce) package frozen butterbeans or “baby” lima beans, still frozen
- 2 medium ears fresh corn, yellow preferred; or a 12 oz. package of frozen corn kernels
Trim off excess fat and any tough parts of the chicken (save these trimmings). Cut chicken into roughly 1-1/2-inch pieces.
In a heavy pot, gently fry the chicken trimmings, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot. When the scraps are fried and golden, remove them from the pot (they make great treats for a pet). Add a little vegetable oil to the pot, if needed, to make about 2 tablespoons of drippings. Fry the chicken pieces together in the pot, turning and scraping frequently, until all the raw color is gone.
Meanwhile, prepare the onion, celery and jalapeños and chop them finely, either in a food processor or with a chef’s knife on a cutting board.
When the chicken has lost all its raw color, add the chopped vegetables and fry gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch pieces.
Add the water and the peeled, cubed potatoes to the chicken and vegetables and bring back to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. With slotted spoon remove the chicken to a bowl (it’s OK if some potato comes with it) and break up remaining potato pieces with a big spoon against the side of the pot or use a potato masher. Chop up the chicken in the bowl with the end of a metal spatula, or cut it up coarsely, part at a time, on the cutting board with a chef’s knife. Add the chicken back to the pot. Add the Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, salt, brown sugar and spices. Simmer five minutes. Break up any chunks of potato that appear.
Add the can of tomatoes with its juices, plus the butterbeans or lima beans. Bring back to a boil, and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes, or until the beans are tender, stirring occasionally. If using fresh corn, cut the kernels off the cobs with a sharp knife. Add the fresh or frozen corn to the soup and simmer 5 minutes.
If the stew is too thick, add a little water. Remove pot from the heat and taste for salt — add a little if needed.
The stew can be served now or cooled and reheated later. It freezes well. Offer hot pepper sauce for diners who wish their stew spicier.
Tim Dondero, the co-owner and Executive Chef of Donderos’ Kitchen, is a culinary enthusiast who has taught international cooking in Atlanta and Athens for years. His redesigned blog is at timsspecialrecipes.com.