How Camp Stew Became a South Alabama Icon

Have you had a bowl?

Camp Stew
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Unless you've spent time in south Alabama, you've probably not heard of camp stew. If you were to see a bowl of it, though, it might look familiar, especially if you're a fan of the savory dish that Georgians call Brunswick stew.

Don't tell the folks in Montgomery or Wetumpka I said that, for they'll insist these are entirely different dishes. After all, a typical Alabama camp stew is a thick red concoction made from beef, pork, or chicken, or some combination of the three, while Georgia-style Brunswick stew is made with chicken, pork, and/or beef. In camp stew, the meat is slowly simmered with tomatoes, potatoes, and onions and perhaps corn and lima beans, while Brunswick stew usually incorporates onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and maybe limas and corn. The difference is subtle, I know.

For decades, Virginia and Georgia have hotly debated which state is the birthplace of Brunswick stew. (The historical evidence points to Virginia) Alabama has so far refused to enter the fray, perhaps because it has neither a town nor a county named Brunswick, but its beloved stew may actually be older than the Peach State's.

In July 1883, several years before the first published account of Brunswick stew being served at a Georgia barbecue, a correspondent from Wisconsin's Watertown Republican attended "a genuine southern barbecue" in Montgomery. He noted that, in addition to pit-cooked pigs, "there is prepared what is called a camp stew. It is made in a large kettle of the heads, tail, feet, liver, heart, tongue, &c. of the animals."

This is very different than Virginia's version of Brunswick stew, which originated as a hunting meal made first with squirrel and later with chicken. Alabama's camp stew—like South Carolina's hash and rice—was originally a means of using up the leftover pig parts at a barbecue. Why it's called "camp stew" is anybody's guess.

By the 1890s, the Montgomery Advertiser regularly mentioned "delicious camp stew" in accounts of south Alabama barbecues. Within a few years the dish was being served in restaurants like the Acme 15 Cent Quick Lunch in Montgomery, which in 1905 advertised "barbecued meats and camp stew every day." During the Christmas season in 1915, the Lee-Reynolds Circle of the Court Street Methodist Episcopal Church sold camp stew alongside chicken salad sandwiches and "possum and taters" at its holiday fundraising lunches.

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As camp stew moved away from outdoor barbecues, recipes increasingly dispensed with the more ignoble parts of the pig. In 1920, a slim volume called The Old South Cookbook: The Best Recipes of the Best Cooks in Montgomery included not one but two camp stew recipes. Both provide the option of using "a small pig's head" or an equivalent amount of "fresh pork," and both add a chicken to the pot along with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. Annie J. Bullock's recipe incorporates okra, bell pepper, and—in an odd twist—two apples, while Mrs. L. C. Mastin lines her pot with a few slices of bacon.

Camp stew continued to grow in popularity through the 20th century, but it never managed to spread beyond a dozen or so counties in south Alabama. These days, you can find camp stew at restaurants as far south as Dobbs Famous Bar-B-Que in Dothan and Down South BBQ in Foley and 30 miles north of Montgomery at Cotton's Bar-B-Q in the splendidly-named Eclectic.

The town of Wetumpka may well be the Alabama's camp stew capital, boasting no fewer than three barbecue joints serving the savory dish: Smokin' S Bar-B-Que, Hog Rock Bar-B-Q, and Champs, though the last of these dubs its version "Champ Stew." As you head east, camp stew territory peters out around Tuskegee or Auburn. While the Hog Rock in Wetumpka prominently features camp stew on its menu, its second location in Phenix City calls its stew Brunswick.

Perhaps the most promising place to sample this genuine south Alabama delicacy is at the Millbrook Men's Club's biannual barbecue and camp stew sale, which has been held each Fourth of July and Labor Day since 1926 to raise money for local causes. The club has never used a written recipe, and longtime members guide the newer ones on what to put in the giant stainless steel kettles. After a good twelve hours of simmering, stirred continuously by volunteers wielding long-handled paddles, the finished stew is packed in quart containers and sold for $10 a piece.

The club's next sale is coming up in a few months on July 4th, and be sure to arrive early if you want to secure a stash of the famous camp stew. It tends to sell out even faster than the barbecue.

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