My stepbrother is getting married this summer, and this weekend we had a big party for him and his bride, a kind of post-engagement, pre-marriage party to celebrate the event and to welcome new people into the family. My best wishes to their upcoming nuptials, and I think both of them did well in the arrangement!
Our family has been cooking a Brunswick stew every year since at least 1966. My father got the recipe from a local church, and we cook it over a wood fire in a black iron cauldron that is used solely for this purpose. The recipe has gotten to be somewhat famous over the years and has been well documented in the annals of Brunswick stew lore. The big iron pot spends the rest of the year with the interior coated with vegetable shortening to preserve the seasoning on the iron.
Believe you me; it is a job to clean the cauldron every year. The day before the stew, we set the cauldron in the cooking barrel, build a fire under it, fill it full of water, and boil the shortening off.
I don’t know how many barrels we’ve had over the years, but by the 1970s we had the procedure for making one up down pat, including cutting a door out of the bottom. It is through this door that we tend the fire. We use dry hickory and oak, both are nice hardwoods that don’t contribute excess “flavor” to the smoke or the food. Burning pine or some other aromatic wood would ruin the cooking.
Looking into the stew albums we keep is like having a time machine. It brings back so many memories of friends and family. For many years, my grandfather helped orchestrate the event, and he was a source of much information regarding the cooking of a stew, or a pig, or just about anything. I still remember conversations with him regarding cooking terrapins, possums, rabbits, squirrels, and catfish. I learned to skin and clean an animal by watching him, my father, and my uncles after hunting or during slaughtering times. He kept chickens for meat and eggs, and in the fall I would go through a strip of woods to the sharecropper’s house at the pig slaughtering. Venison I learned from my father, and how to pick a quail.
It takes a whole afternoon to set up for a stew, not least because we also tend to bbq a whole pig and 30-40 chickens. It takes one large grill these days for the chickens and another one for the pig. In addition to the stew barrel, we have another barrel for making coals for the pig or the chickens. Rebar is inserted through the barrel on the lower third, and the hardwood fire is built on top of this and fed through the top. As the embers accumulate, we shovel them out through a door on the bottom and shovel them in to the grill.
If any precipitation is possible, we hang the tarps and make sure that any stakes or ropes are out of the way. People can find the craziest ways to trip over stuff, as we have experienced over the years, especially when the Chatham Artillery Punch is flowing.
On the morning of the stew, a couple of folks need to show up early to start the fires going, and get the water boiling for the stew. It is probably my favorite time of the whole day. It is quiet and businesslike, but relaxed. When people are doing something they know about, they don’t talk too much, they just work together, and that feeling is rare and precious. When the water is boiling, we start adding meat to the cauldron, along with onions and hot peppers.
By mid-morning, maybe someone makes biscuits, cooks some sausage or ham, or there is something else to nibble. We are fishing the bones out of the cauldron as the meat cooks down. For many years, the hardest part of this chore was finding and removing the small bones of the squirrels, but my father discovered that he could put the squirrels into a cheesecloth bag and just throw them in with the rest. When they are fully cooked it is easy to remove the bag, open it, and hunt out the bones, then dump the now boneless squirrel back directly into the pot. All through the day we add the different vegetables at the right times so that the stew “cooks down” in the right sequence.
We stir the pot with a wooden paddle that is now an antique in its own right. I remember my grandfather whittling to shape one of the paddles we had. And we have long tongs and other accouterments of the trade, including the custom made iron turning forks I showed a picture of in the first bbq chicken post.
The pig goes on fairly early, as well, skin side up. In the heat of the afternoon it is “time to flip the pig”. We put another metal grate on top of the pig, wire the two grates together and use several men to flip the grate 180 degrees. Then we put him back on the grill, untie the wires and remove the now top grate. At the right time, the ribs are done and we pull them out with tongs; eating the ribs is a time honored tradition and being there to do so is considered an honor. I can also remember pulling cooked chicken out of the pot. We would make hot chicken sandwiches on white bread. Honestly, hot chicken sandwiches and ribs dripping with grease and sauce are the best eats of the day. I am rarely still hungry by dinnertime, and typically content myself with a half a chicken and dessert.
Right after lunch is time to put on the chickens. For details, see my last post on bbq chickens (click here).
More people start showing up as the afternoon passes, and by 4 pm there is a passel of folks sipping wine, beer, our Chatham Artillery Punch, or other beverages more or less exotic. There are nibbles to eat which have varied widely over the years, but may include crudités, cheese and crackers, cold salads, etc. Traditionally there is pimento cheese spread, but we don’t have it every so often, I think to whet the appetite for the next time. Live music is being played on guitars and banjos and basses and cellos and fiddles and dulcimers, and mostly consists of old time music, bluegrass, or plain unlabeled folk music.
Along about 6 pm we have let the heat on the pig die down, and it is time to chop the pig. Our choppers this year did a yeoman’s job (including my stepbrother). The chickens have been taken off their grill and piled high in large platters. The stew is ladled out into large wooden and ceramic bowls with an immense ladle (darn it, I missed shooting a picture of the ladle). Slaw, bread, cornbread, and extra sauce are set out, along with gallons of iced tea. Soon the call for dinner is made, and a buffet line congas around filling plates with food.
The party goes on into the night. The clean up job takes hours of dedicated work (both this evening and the next day), by a bevy of hard workers who chip in to lighten the load. And at the end of it all, everything has to be taken down and moved back into storage until next time. As much prep work goes into ensuring that everything will be clean and ready the next time as goes into setting up the show the day before. In my mind are images of small circuses coming to rural towns, setting up, performing, breaking down, and moving out quietly; all to provide a day of entertainment and pleasure, and my notions of what they are like has a lot to do with the same rhythms of this annual process we dance through.
I can see already that I’ve left out hundreds of details. I think it would take a whole chapter of a book to document it as well as I’d like. And that doesn’t count the dozens of “stew stories” I can relate.
Oh! The Recipe. It is documented slightly differently in several places, but here is one I keep on hand.
8 lbs beef
8 lbs pork
7 young fresh whole chickens
2 lbs onions, coarsely chopped
2 cayenne peppers
1 gallon tiny butterbeans
10 lbs potatoes (peel and quarter)
8 quarts canned tomatoes
10 quarts sweet white corn, cut off the cob
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter
salt and black pepper (add 3 tbls each time a new ingredient is added)
Bring water to boil in 25 gallon pot, adding the meat, onions, and peppers, adding more water as needed (season).
3 hours after that, add the butterbeans (and salt & pepper).
3 hours after that, add the potatoes, season.
3 hours after that, add the tomatoes, season. Until now the whole thing has been kept at a low roiling boil. You must stir it regularly to keep it from sticking.
After 1 hour, start to reduce the heat. 30 minutes before serving add the corn. 15 minutes before serving add the vinegar, sugar, and butter (remember to season!). Taste and season. Heat should now be residual. You can let it cool while you eat, but before you go to bed remaining stew must be removed from the pot and placed in containers to freeze. Easy to reheat and serve.