Southerners love to debate the origins of Brunswick stew. Virginia,Georgia and North Carolina all claim to be its birthplace, but the truth most likely is that it originated with Native Americans. The first stews of early America contained all sorts of wild game. Some cooks still say it isn't Brunswick Stew unless it has squirrel.
According to historians in Brunswick County, Va., the original Brunswick stew was created in 1828 by Jimmy Matthews, a black chef who cooked for Dr. Creed Haskins. As the story goes, Haskins, a member of the Virginia legislature, took friends on a hunting expedition. While the group hunted, Matthews was to prepare dinner. The venison he was supposed to cook had spoiled. So Matthews hunted squirrel for the evening meal and then slowly stewed the squirrels with butter, onions, stale bread and seasoning in a large iron pot.
Since that time, Brunswick stew has been prepared by a number of different ways, each with a unique twist on the original recipe. Now made with chicken, this ?Virginia ambrosia? is still cooked in big cast-iron pots. Stirred for hours, the newer variations are still based on the original recipe?s ingredients: corn, tomatoes and lima beans.
Brunswick, Ga., also claims to be the place of origin for Brunswick stew. In fact, a 25-gallon iron pot in the coastal town bears a plaque declaring it to be the vessel in which this Southern food was first cooked in 1898. Georgia that stews were cooked in black washtubs and fed farm families across Georgia as well as black slaves on the Sea Islands.
The making of the stew in many Southern states became a ritual around which communities gathered for social events and to raise money for people and organizations in need. The biggest difference in Virginia Brunswick stew and Georgia Brunswick stew is the type of meat used. In Virginia the recipe originally called for squirrel and now is made with chicken. In Georgia, the recipe was orginally made with hogs? heads and other lesser parts of the pig.
Back in the day, when a hog was slaughtered, every part was used; nothing was thrown away. The higher end cuts went to those on the higher end of the economic scale, those who could afford to eat high off the hog;? the lesser parts were sold to the working class. In the days of slavery, plantation owners looked for cheap but hearty high-protein meals to feed the slaves. To that end, a stew was developed by cooking down the hog?s head and organ meat with vegetables and spices ? Brunswick stew.
Georgians continued to make their Brunswick stew in the traditional manner, long after slavery ended, until health department restrictions forbade restaurateurs and Georgia stew masters, or stew dogs as they are known, to use the hog?s head. Now Georgia Brunswick stew is commonly made with chicken, but additional spices and vinegar are added to replicate the taste of the hog.
While North Carolina has stayed out of the stew war competition, many will claim that some of the finest Brunswick stew in the South is made just north of Uptown Charlotte and served annually at the Mallard Creek Church Barbecue. They cook the pork over hot hickory coals all day using big iron pots and it takes about 12 hours in all to cook the stew.
What sets the Mallard Creek Brunswick stew apart from others is the addition of pork and beef to the slow-cooked, shredded chicken, they add ground tomatoes and corn as well.