August 27, 2015
Our Coast’s Food: Brunswick Stew
By LIZ BIRO
Coastal Review Online
it the Cape Fear region’s Brunswick County? Brunswick, Ga.? Brunswick
County, Va.? All of them lay claim to the original recipe for Brunswick
stew, that steaming mélange of corn, tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes and
so much tender, shredded chicken.
Or should that be beef? Or pork? Or a combination of beef, pork and
chicken? This is where self-proclaimed Brunswick stew purists roll
their eyes. Squirrel is the choice for true Brunswick stew, they say —
unless you’ve trapped a raccoon or opossum.
Wait. The debate isn’t over yet.
Some people consider black pepper vs. cayenne pepper. Others like
Brunswick stew more sugar-sweet than spicy. Discussions center on soupy
or thick. Georgians like Brunswick stew in a bowl. North Carolinians
prefer it as a side dish to pulled pork and fried chicken, possibly
because Brunswick stew is a way for barbecue houses to use up leftover
pork and fried chicken.
Food arguments over regional variations on a single dish usually boil
down to, as chef Larry Casey put it, growing up “dirt poor” and making
“When I was a kid, we normally put whatever in it,” Casey said of Brunswick stew.
The version Casey serves at his Casey’s Buffet Southern cooking
restaurant in Wilmington is hardly the one he grew up loving in New
Bern, where he and his cousin, as kids, trapped and sold raccoons to
“In a (Brunswick) stew, it’s (raccoon) absolutely perfect,” Casey said.
His memories sum up cause for the Brunswick stew debate. Like Casey,
many Southerners recall Brunswick stews containing foods their families
raised and hunted.
“My mom and my aunts always had tomatoes that had been cooked and
canned in the pantry,” Casey said, “as well as corn and green beans,
etc., canned in the pantry, freezer. And making Brunswick stew was
definitely a means of stretching the protein.”
Turns out, Brunswick stew has always been a humble mishmash of whatever was available.
Historians say Brunswick stew started in Brunswick County, Va. They
credit early 1800s slave and hunting camp cook, James Matthews. Legend
claims he was known for a fine squirrel stew. Matthews slow-cooked the
meat on the bone with bacon, onions, butter and a crumbled loaf of
stale bread, creating a rich, dense stew.
Matthews’ employer, Dr. Creed Haskins, and Haskins’ relatives living in
and around Mount Donum, Va., deemed Matthews’ stew the original
Brunswick stew in letters. The correspondences were printed in the 1906
booklet, "Brunswick County, Virginia: Information for the Homeseeker
and Investor," published by the Brunswick County, Va., Board of
Vegetables in Brunswick stew showed up later. No one knows exactly
when. Perhaps, it was the batch Haskins is said to have made famous at
an 1828 rally for Andrew Jackson. Corn and limas hark to Native
American succotash. “It seems safe to say that Indians were making
stews with wild game long before any Europeans arrived, and in that
sense, there was Brunswick stew before there was a Brunswick,” the late
Southern cuisine authority John Edgerton wrote in "Southern Food"
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).
Sacred as “authentic” Brunswick stew is to its fans, recipe tinkering continues.
“Indeed, it would appear that there is not just one secret but even
tens of thousands of secrets, at least one for every Southerner who
makes the stuff,” author Wilber W. Caldwell wrote of Brunswick stew in
"Searching for the Dixie Barbecue: Journeys Into the Southern Psyche"
(Pineapple Press, 2005).
Champion Brunswick stew maker Oren Knicely’s various recipes respect most opinions of what constitutes true Brunswick stew.
The Shallotte resident a few times has won the December Brunswick
County Brunswick stew cook-off, usually held in conjuction with the
town’s Christmas parade. He also competes in the Brunswick, Ga.,
Brunswick stew cook-off, but he alters his secret recipe to suit
For North Carolinians, Knicely adds smoked pork, brisket and chicken
breast in a stew of onions, tomatoes, okra, potatoes, carrots, lima
beans and creamed corn.
“When you’re eating it, it’s got just a little bit of sweet then the heat kicks in right behind the heat,” Knicely said.
In Georgia, cooks prefer pulled pork and pulled chicken in a more vinegary, ultra-thick stew.
No matter the recipe, one characteristic is key across state lines.
“The paddle you’re stirring with should stand up (in the finished stew)
without a problem – freestand,” Knicely said.
Rules and tradition don’t stop N.C. chefs from doctoring Brunswick
stew. They may begin with a classic mirepoix — chopped onion,
carrot and celery sautéed together. To that, they might add garlic,
herbs, smoky chilies, homemade barbecue sauce and grilled meats.
“Maybe a deconstructed thing, where you have the butter beans and corn
with a pork chop, and the Brunswick stew flavors in the background.”
Wilmington chef James Doss brainstormed.
The owner of the Port City’s Rx and Pembroke’s restaurants grew up
eating Brunswick stew alongside barbecue in the eastern N.C.
pulled-pork capital of Goldsboro.
How about a cornbread bowl filled with Brunswick stew, Doss said. “Or
maybe with grilled chicken or a grilled pork chop or braised and
pressed pork belly, stewed butter beans and fresh heirloom tomato
The original Brunswick stew formula may never emerge. Two things are
for sure: Different recipes will always stir a fuss, and wondering who
is right is a mystery best served with big helpings of Brunswick stew.
“When I was a kid,” Casey said, “I didn’t know anything about it — except we cooked it and we loved it.”
Brunswick Stew Casey
Plenty of corn, lima beans, green beans, tomatoes, pork and chicken
pack Casey’s sweet, black peppery Brunswick stew. Find it at Casey’s
Buffet in Wilmington most days of the week due to high demand.
6 large chicken breasts
6 large chicken thighs
2 large yellow onions, diced
10 large white potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons of salt
1 tablespoon of black pepper
1 pound of butter
1 gallon whole peeled tomatoes
3 quarts frozen baby green lima beans (butter beans)
2 quarts of kernel corn
2 quarts of green beans
3 to 4 tablespoons Texas Pete hot sauce
3 cups of sugar
Put chicken in the pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce
heat to low and slowly simmer chicken until cooked, about 1 hour.
Remove chicken from pot and set aside to cool. Reserve stock.
Place the onions and potatoes in a large stock pot. Add salt, pepper
and butter. Cover vegetables with the stock produced from cooking the
chicken. Place the pot over high heat and bring contents to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer until a fork easily pierces the potatoes.
Crush the tomatoes by hand and add them to the pot.
Pull the chicken from the bone. Add the meat to the pot along with lima
beans, corn and green beans. Simmer stew over low heat for about 2
hours. Stir in Texas Pete hot sauce and sugar.
Makes 25 to 30 servings.
Source: Larry Casey
(This article is provided
by Coastal Review Online, an online news service covering North
Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and information about
the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)