In December, my barbecue excursions took me through a large portion of the Brunswick stew belt, which runs roughly from Alabama and Tennessee eastward through the Carolinas and up into Virginia. By far the most popular and far-ranging of America's great regional barbecue stews, the Brunswick variety has evolved into several distinct subspecies over the years, and what one finds in central Georgia is quite different from what's served in Alabama or Virginia.

In North Carolina, pretty much anything goes when it comes to Brunswick stew, though the meat of choice tends to be chicken and it's frequently seasoned with salt pork. Keith Allen's version at Allen & Sons in Chapel Hill is a thick, tomatoey concoction studded with corn, limas, and potatoes. Over at Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville, the Brunswick stew is much thinner—basically a slightly-sweet broth chock-full of carrots, limas, and green beans.

emA side of Brunswick stew at Allen & Sons, Chapel Hill, NC/em
emAt Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville, NC, there are ample veggies in the Brunswick stew./em

Brunswick stew is fairly prevalent in eastern Tennessee, too, and it tends toward the savory soup variety, incorporating long strands of pulled pork or chicken along with a full garden's worth of vegetables. At Shuford's Smokehouse in Chattanooga, for instance, hidden down in the smoky broth are carrots, onions, corn, green peas, green beans, limas, and big chunks of potato, and a thick wedge of warm cornbread is served alongside.

emAt Shuford's Smokehouse in Chattanooga, the stew is almost a soup/em

That soupy quality persists as you work your way down into Alabama. At Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, the Brunswick stew brims with finely-shredded pork and large chunks of potato, while a bowl at the Golden Rule in Irondale has a minimal meat but plenty of limas, carrots, and green peas in a savory, slightly spicy broth.

emAt the Golden Rule in Irondale, Alabama, the veggie-packed broth is dark and savory/em

But the epicenter of Brunswick stew in the South—the buckle of the Brunswick stew belt, if you will—is Georgia. It's so omnipresent in Peach State barbecue joints that many diners consider the "Brunswick" part dispensable and simply call it "stew".

In Georgia, it's truly a stew, not a soup, and they don't mess around with a lot of vegetables. Corn, tomatoes, and onions are the essentials, and a few cooks might slip in limas or potatoes. But they aren't making minestrone. The key to Georgia-style Brunswick stew is its texture. The stew is cooked for hours on end until the meats break down into fine bits and the whole concoction has sort of merged into a thick, consistent whole.

It harkens back to the 19th century, when Brunswick stew was cooked outdoors over wood fires in giant iron pots, allowing the magic of slow-simmering to transform basic ingredients into something rich and delightful.

In the old days, the stew at Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson, Georgia, was prepared just this way: over a wood fire in a 25 gallon iron pot, with a cook stirring it constantly with a poplar stick. These days, the equipment has been updated—they use a 60 gallon steam-heated kettle equipped with an automatic stirrer—but the basic recipe is still the same, and the exact ingredients are a tightly-held secret.

emA side of stew at Fresh Air Bar-B-Que in Jackson, GA/em

The meats used in Georgia-style stew vary. At Fresh Air, they use all beef, while at The Old Brick Pit Barbeque outside of Atlanta they use whatever pork and chicken is left over at the end of the day. At Sprayberry's in Newnan, they use all three: beef, pork, and chicken. But, in the finished form of all these versions the meat is cooked down to such fine bits that it almost doesn't seem to matter.

emTexture is key: An iconic version of Georgia-style Brunswick stew from Heavy's Bar-B-Q, Crawfordville, GA/em

Thick, rich, and savory, a cup of stew is the essential accompaniment to a chopped pork sandwich in the state of Georgia. And don't forget the saltine crackers: in Georgia, they're almost always served alongside.