When I moved back to North Carolina a few years back after more than a decade in Southern California, I tended to focus on the changes that had taken place in my absence. Though I had often come back to visit family, I had never stayed long enough to focus on the growth and transformation taking place. But once we settled in and began putting down roots, numerous changes stood out.
Roads had swollen and multiplied and new buildings abounded. Sub shops and Chinese buffets had sprouted, and grocery stores now carried kalamata olives and Gorgonzola cheese. Bread, coffee and moon pies came in flavors now, and fans of intercollegiate athletics showed their love not just with tee-shirts, but with banners, face paint, license plates and flags. Tea was still sweet, though you often had to specify, and the K&W Cafeteria now provided balsamic and white wine vinegars for those who wanted a little chic zing with their greens.
Zooming along I-40, I often needed the signs to tell me where I was, but a turn off onto roads that had been there long enough to have only two lanes with hills and curves soon restored my sense of place.
Produce stands still carried silver queen, cukes, ‘maters and ‘lopes, and a barbecue place promised both sliced and chopped, but no salmon, Caesar salad nor anything grilled.
Come fall, other than the glory of autumn colors on all those leaves on all those trees, the sweetest sight of all was the appearance along those roadways of signs heralding the opening of the Brunswick stew season. Starting in September and simmering on until early November, stew season satisfied me greatly, stirring up memories and providing the family with many a delicious supper all the way through spring.
Brunswick stew cooks long and slow out of doors, in big heavy pots, stirred with great wooden paddles and tended by experts and their apprentices with patience, energy and love. Stew takes lots of hands and lots of hours to bring its elements together into hearty, comfort-food harmony. This is why people have been gathering to cook it and share it for as long as anybody can remember.
The ingredients are simple and the techniques straightforward enough. Various meats are simmered until tender, cooled and then boned, chopped and pulled to pieces. Into the meat stock go prodigious amounts of tomatoes that provide Brunswick stew with its autumnal red-orange hue. Back in go the meats, along with diced potatoes, onions, fresh and dried lima beans, and white corn. Seasonings include butter, sugar, salt, black pepper and red pepper.
Many people would agree with the process to this point, and the fact that stew cooks a long time and needs a lot of stirring. But here is where the consensus ends. The order of adding things to the pot, the amounts, additions and variations on this theme are as numerous as the leaves on the autumn trees.
Opinions are strong and deeply felt, but not as intensely around here as those on barbecue and slaw.
Happily, stew is low-key and pleasing, an invitation to gather, lend a hand, and be fed in good company.
Meats anchor a traditional Brunswick stew, which originally featured wild game, with squirrel and rabbit the essential elements of the classic stews throughout the south. In recent generations, chicken has replaced the wild game in most versions, with beef and or pork roasts also going into the pot. Sometimes stew chefs start by cooking the raw meats in water, but they are often cooked and chopped separately in advance, reserving the stock for the stewpot.
The scale of a traditional community stew recipe reminds me of recipes used on battleships and in army field kitchens: 20 pounds of stew beef, hens by the dozen, tomatoes by the gallon and salt by the handful.
Cooking times in such recipes are approximate, and vary with the amount of stew, but one thing is
certain: Somebody will be up at 3 or 4 a.m., or at least before you and me, getting the fire going, the pot boiling, and the paddle stirring.
The sign may say “Brunswick Stew Saturday: 4 – 7 p.m.”, but this is the invitation to the grand finale.
The planning begins months in advance, with the week leading up to stew day a blur of procuring groceries, getting firewood or gas ready to keep the pots bubbling, setting up tables and chairs for the eat-in crowd and quart containers for the take-away line, food prep, arranging for trash and parking–I’ve forgotten something, but they haven’t. The stew folks will be ready when they said they would be and the stew will be wonderful.
The dedicated crowd needed to produce a stew and the delicious and satisfying nature of the finished product ensure that many a community organization makes Brunswick stew an annual fund-raising event.
Last year my purchase of stew at a Durham, NC, child-care center helped send their staff-members to a conference in Atlanta. The stew I bought in Hillsborough, NC, helped a local civic club with their service projects. The stew I bought out in Chatham County, NC, helped pay for a new engine for the volunteer fire fighters.
Seems to me that this Brunswick stew is a very good deal. How grand to be able to do a good deed with such little effort on my part and such great reward for all! This reward can be savored now, at a long table in the grange hall with tea and pie and friendly folks, and then again, during, say, a big snowstorm in February, or on any too-busy-to-cook night.
I’m always pumped up for stew season, with a license to chow down and a bumper sticker which reads, “I Brake for Stew!” The flaming leaves and a little chill in the air are calling me out onto the country roads.
I am hungry and ready. My only wish is that I had more room in my freezer.
Preserving the Seasons
Unless my grandmother was busy cooking at the stove or table, the pantry was my favorite part of her kitchen. It was a deep, narrow room in the corner, lined from floor to ceiling with shelves painted the same bluish-grey as the rest of her kitchen. The pantry door usually stayed closed, making it a prime destination for an escape from big and little sisters, chores, or inquiries about homework.
Built-in shelves lined its walls on three sides, each filled with glistening rows of jars. Half-pints were unthinkable, not enough in them to last through a meal, but there were pints and many quarts, as well as numerous half-gallon jars for the most prolific vegetables and fruits. The pantry was the safe holding her farmhouse treasure, the bounty of her summertime garden captured under glass.
Tall jars of tomatoes, corn, butterbeans and green beans filled the lower shelves, taking up the greatest amount of space. Of far greater interest to me were the upper shelves lined with squat little jars of jams, jellies and preserves. These sweet jars chimed the hours of summer’s pleasures, reminding the family throughout the winter of how generously summertime had rewarded us for enduring and persevering in the season’s fierce damp heat.
Strawberry jam and cherry preserves opened the season in June; blackberry jam and jelly sang out in July; canned, pickled and jammed peaches heralded August, and in September apple jelly and apple butter announced autumn. Grape jelly was my favorite for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at home, but a visit to Grandmother’s meant hot biscuits with fresh cold butter, and only the pantry’s finest deserved a place on her table.
I don’t recall helping out with the canning operations, which took over the kitchen throughout the summer for days at a time. I do remember passing though clouds of steam on my way out through the screen door to take care of business. For my two sisters and numerous cousins, business meant climbing trees, making up plays down by the creek, naming and babying the calves, hunting for eggs in and out of the henhouse, or clambering up into the hayloft with a book.
For my grandmother and her four daughters, the business at hand for a summer day was a stove practically trembling with its vats of berries and pots of syrups and brines. A massive washbasin of boiling water held newly filled and sealed jars, simmering away until any pesky germs gave up the ghost and left the building. The kitchen table groaned with great enamelware basins mounded high with the summer’s harvest: green beans, strung and snapped; voluptuous tomatoes, blanched and peeled and bursting with juice; strawberries red as lipstick alongside sun-colored corn and cucumbers the soothing hue of the soft grass under a shade tree.
Fans droned in the window and tall glasses of sweet tea and lemonade beaded up with sweat just like the cooks. They stood some and sat some, peeled and stirred and tested and tasted, talking and laughing a lot and sometimes just doing the job. There was no romance about it for them, only work to be done to keep the family fed. The garden gave more than they could eat and the grocery store charged a hefty price for the ease of buying things you could make or grow yourself. It was a family business, just as the dairy out behind the house was, only on a much smaller scale and without the hassles of retail. The customers, Grandmother’s family and friends, seemed highly pleased with the products and kept coming back for more. With Grandmother in charge of quality control and personnel, the business flourished until she retired from keeping a garden, chickens, kitchen, house and the dairy’s books.
There’s romance in it form me now, perhaps because I don’t have to do it., and because it connects me to my grandmother and to all those women toiling and talking in the service of the seasons. I can preserve things I like but don’t grow myself, as well as those I do. I can do my canning in diminutive quantities that would have made my grandmother question my good sense, for I don’t require a pantry nor work at it for days on end. I like it because I have young children who think cooking with me is a treat (usually), partly because they seldom have to do it the way my mother and her mother and her mother did. I like it because the process is essentially simple, though it demands effort and focus, and because the end product lasts longer than anything else I cook. I like to make peach jam and blackberry jam because my grandmother made them, and fig preserves, ginger-pear chutney and hot pepper jelly, even though she didn’t.
Finally, I like it because I have air-conditioning to keep the heat of the stove and summer sun at bay. When we moved to North Carolina a few years back, we planted a peach tree first thing, to remind us of he one we left behind in our Southern California back yard. That tree’s peaches were the inspiration for my first batch of jam more than 10 years ago, and I was eager to keep the tradition going in my North Carolina kitchen.
The little tree settled right in, bursting forth with a flurry of blossoms the following spring that turned into sturdy little junior peaches as summer approached. There were about 14 of them, and they plumped up and began turning from green to yellowish pink. Then I began to notice a mysterious decline in their numbers over the course of a few days. No fallen fruit lay beneath the tree, but 14 went to 10, then 7 and finally, 5.
The mystery was solved the day I glanced out to the backyard garden to see one of the two feisty young squirrels, residents of our massive tulip poplar, squatting in the middle of the garden path. The rascal squatted facing the house, with peach #4 grasped firmly in his tiny thieving hands, nibbling away with what I could swear was a devilish grin. I charged him like a mother tiger (once I had made it through the back door, the screen door, across the deck and out into the yard), but it was a hollow victory. Me with a half-chewed, rock-hard peach, him with the knowledge that night would come and the phone would ring, and he and his sidekick would prevail.
No jam that year, but each year is a new page. I’ll be staying close to the window come spring. I’m willing to share, and I’m not ready to take up hunting at this point in my life, even to test out the authentic, traditional North Carolina version of Brunswick stew, featuring squirrel. I’m leaving this one up to Mother Nature, because I’m going to make jam no matter what. In the event that I have to do some out-sourcing this year, I’ll be ready. I will have the farmer’s markets and roadside stands of North Carolina to provide me with peaches aplenty, berries by the bushel, and tomatoes galore.