The Complicated History of Brunswick Stew
Back at the beginning of October, I was down on St. Simons Island in Georgia, attending Firebox, a barbecue festival staged by the guys at Southern Soul. On the way home, I took a short detour to track down a barbecue relic that I had seen in pictures but never in person: the first Brunswick Stew pot.
It's a curious historical marker: a twenty-five gallon black iron pot affixed to a stone base. It's located in Mary Ross Waterfront Park in downtown Brunswick, and the inscription on the base reads, "In this pot the first Brunswick Stew was made on St. Simon Isle July 2 1898."
A few days later, I was amused to see that another Firebox guest, Jim Auchmutey, the author of Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue In America, had made a side trip of his own to track down the legendary pot and snap a picture for his blog.
Like me, Auchmutey has always found the marker's claim "charmingly suspect," as he puts it. But when I looked a little closer at the picture he had posted, I had to laugh.
It wasn't the same pot.
Yes, it turns out there are two pots in Brunswick, Georgia, that claim to commemorate the origin of Brunswick stew. The one Auchmutey visited is at the southbound rest area on I-95 just before you get to Brunswick. Its plaque reads, "The first Brunswick stew was made here in the Brunswick - Golden Isles area in early colonial days. It remains an American favorite."
I can endorse the "American favorite" part, but at the risk of stirring the pot with a bunch of Georgians, it's going to take a lot more to convince me the Peach State is the originator of Brunswick stew—especially when those two pots can't get their stories straight.
If anyone was cooking Brunswick stew in colonial Georgia, they left no record of it. There are plenty of written accounts, though, of a dish called Brunswick stew being cooked in Virginia prior to the Civil War. In 1849, the Alexandria Gazette described Brunswick stew as "a genuine South-side dish, composed of squirrels, chicken, a little bacon, and corn and tomatoes."
In 1855 the Petersburg Intelligencer explained the stew's origin, noting that "in the good old county of Brunswick" it was popular during the hot summers "to repair almost every Saturday to some spring, to spend half the day." For entertainment, the men would shoot squirrels and stew them "in a pot with a sufficient quantity of water . . . . over a slow fire. In due time were added tomatoes, corn, butter-beans, potatoes, with the requisite condiments of salt and Cayenne pepper."
Over time, more details got added to the Virginia origin tale. Accounts from the 1880s attributed the recipe to a noted hunter and cook named James Matthews from the Red Oak neighborhood in Brunswick County. Such stories were recorded a good 70 years after the supposed creation of the first stew, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt (and perhaps a pinch of cayenne), but all signs point clearly to Virginia as the place of origin.
You don't even have to take the Virginians' word for it. The first mention of Brunswick stew that I can find in a Georgia newspaper appeared in 1871 in an advertisement for Med Henderson's saloon in Savannah, which promoted a daily free lunch featuring okra soup and—believe it or not—"Old Virginia Brunswick Stew."
So where did those fibbing Georgia pots come from? Both were salvos in a long-running debate between the two states. One of them may have even started the whole thing.
The older monument—the one in Mary Ross Waterfront Park—dates back to 1946. In March of that year, the Brunswick News reported that "Stew's Origin Puzzles Local Officials." Over the years, many people had written to the Brunswick Board of Trade asking for a recipe for Brunswick stew, assuming from the town's name that the dish must have originated there. The organization's managing secretary, Mrs. K. G. Berrie, would dutifully send them a mimeographed copy of a recipe she had found in a cookbook.
Then a letter arrived asking not for a recipe but for the history of the stew. Mrs. Berrie was stumped, and she turned to the newspaper for help. "The question never came up before," the News reported. "No one around here has any idea of the origin of Brunswick stew, especially any idea that would connect its origins with Brunswick, Georgia."
The article prompted a flood of letters, and in April the News reported, "the Board of Trade is in more of a stew than ever, since it has not one but several indisputable accounts of the origin of the famed concoction." One claimed it was a favorite of Queen Victoria and must have come from Brunswick, Germany. A woman from Savannah asserted she was the direct descendant of the owner of the Georgia plantation on which it originated. A local letter writer was even bolder, declaring that the stew originated in Brunswick, Georgia, during the Spanish-American war and that he even had "the original pot in which the first stew was stewed."
The News quickly discounted this last assertion, noting "the ability of this pot to hold water becomes questionable when considered in the light of other reports." The paper concluded the most plausible story was that provided by a doctor from Cochran, Georgia, who quoted from a 1906 pamphlet prepared by the Board of Supervisors of Brunswick County, Virginia, which laid out the case for James Matthews and his fellow Red Oak squirrel hunters.
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The local claimant wasn't satisfied. In May, the Atlanta Constitution reported that "two restaurant owners near Brunswick have constructed a memorial stand for the pot and placed the historic vessel in a concrete base . . . in front of their place of business." An inscription below the pot read, "In this pot the first Brunswick stew was made on St. Simons Isle, July 2, 1898." (I'm still trying to track down the name of this restaurant, but it's a safe bet there was Brunswick stew on the menu.)
At some point the monument was moved to the Welcome Center on Highway 17 in downtown Brunswick. It remained there until 2012, when the Welcome Center closed and the pot was moved to its current home in Mary Ross Waterfront Park.
So why is there a second pot? That one, it seems, came about as the result of a good-natured campaign to stick it to the Virginians once and for all.
Over the years, small skirmishes erupted between stew partisans in the two states, but things came to a head in the late 1980s, and Georgians fired the first shot. In November 1987, Brunswick's mayor and the organizer of the Main Street Jubilee challenged the administrator of Brunswick County, Virginia, to enter a team in the Brunswick stew competition in that year's Jubilee.
The Virginians declined, citing "health problems and lack of preparation time" for their leading stew-maker. The county supervisors did, however, pass a measure affirming Virginia's Brunswick as the place of origin and asking the Virginia General Assembly to pass a resolution backing their claim.
The mayor of Brunswick, Georgia, Paul Warwick, declared those to be "fighting words." The Brunswick News ran a picture of Warwick standing next to the stew pot at the Welcome Center and pointing to the inscription on its base. In February 1988, the Glynn County Commission approved its own resolution declaring Brunswick, Georgia, to be the place of origin of the famous stew.
A series of newspaper exchanges followed, and the Virginians seized upon the Georgians' pot as evidence against them, producing multiple recipes from cookbooks that were published well before the pot's claimed origin date of 1898. To further advance their cause, the Brunswick County delegation held a "stew in" on the Virginia state capitol grounds, and a local economic development group started mailing their version of the recipe's history along with sample packets of stew to various business publications.
It all ended amicably. In September, a delegation of Georgia cooks was invited to compete in the Brunswick County Heritage Festival and Brunswick Stew Cookoff in Virginia. The leader of the Georgia group reported that they were "treated like visiting royalty and could not have been more warmly received," though the trophy went to a Virginia team. The Georgians returned the favor a few months later, hosting a team of Virginians who competed in the stew cook-off at the Main Street Jubilee in Brunswick—which was won by a Georgia team, of course.
In October of that year, midway between the two cook-offs, Christopher K. Jones of Boy Scout Troop 224 erected the stew pot monument in the I-95 rest area as his Eagle Scout project. This time around, the inscription on the base dated the first Brunswick stew not in 1898, which the Virginians had clearly demonstrated to be incorrect, but all the way back in "early colonial days."
I'm not buying it, but I will give the state of Georgia this: its cooks may not have invented Brunswick stew, but I firmly believe that they have perfected it. Brunswick stew is served in barbecue joints all over Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, but none holds a candle the savory stuff found in classic Georgia restaurants like Fresh Air in Jackson and Old Brick Pit in Atlanta.
Southern Soul Barbeque does a superlative version of it, too, right there on St. Simons Island. Tangy and bright and brimming with corn, limas, and shreds of meat, it's by no means the original recipe, but it sure is delicious.