When I was a teenager, determined to drive too fast, I took a curve pretending I was an Earnhardt and spilled six quarts of church fundraiser Brunswick stew on the floorboard of my car.
My mother had sent me to pick up eight Styrofoam containers of soup, but I returned with only two, the rest mixing in with athletic gear behind the driver's seat. I cleaned it up, but when the temperature peaked the following summer, my Jeep's interior smelled like a high school locker room crossed with a pig picking. More than a decade later, my mother remains amazed at my recklessness. I suspect she is actually disappointed that I wasted Brunswick stew.
North Carolina barbecue, both the Eastern and Lexington varieties, has found success far outside the state's borders. I ordered it at a restaurant in Denver when I was feeling homesick. In Scotland, on Edinburgh's touristy Royal Mile, you can eat pulled pork sandwiches at Bubba's Q, just one storefront over from a souvenir shop selling scotch and plaid scarves. At Brooklyn's Arrogant Swine, chef Tyson Ho claims he is "on a mission to bring traditional North Carolina BBQ to New York City." His menu includes both Eastern-style whole hog and Lexington shoulder.
One thing you won't get in Colorado, Scotland, or New York is Brunswick stew. In a 2014 article in Serious Eats, Ho said he would like to serve it but didn't think anyone in New York would buy it. Although it's as integral to a North Carolina barbecue menu as fried okra and hush puppies, Brunswick stew hasn't become a main attraction out of state.
Some historians trace the stew's origins to a Native American woman, a cook with no recorded name. Most people, however, will only agree that Brunswick stew likely came from Brunswick County, Virginia, or the town of Brunswick, Georgia. People from each Brunswick have strong opinions about the other Brunswick making false claims to its creation, as well as how the pretender ruins the true stew with offending contents and consistency. To hear the Brunswicks bicker is enough to make you swear off the stuff altogether. They argue over whether the stew should be spicy, smoky, or mushy. Then there is the question of peas and potatoes: Should they accompany the agreed-upon corn and lima beans?
These ridiculous arguments ignore the fact that traditional Brunswick stew included items like squirrel, possum, and whatever else the cook had on hand. Today's versions usually stick to chicken and sometimes pork; Hillsborough BBQ Company adds rabbit to the poultry and pig. Brunswick stew being synonymous with squirrel stew may be one reason why the dish hasn't caught on outside the South. It's also a chore to make.
Any Brunswick stew worth its salt (and it should have a great deal of salt) takes hours to make. Those hours can stretch overnight if the pot is big enough. The same "low and slow" approach that makes the best North Carolina barbecue also applies to Brunswick stew. Restaurants in New York may be able to justify hiring a pitmaster when a pulled pork sandwich sells for $13.95, but they can't expect to break even on a "stewmaster." Without someone there to provide the constant attention the stew needs, it simply can't be done right.
Thankfully, people in North Carolina have the knowledge and desire to make proper Brunswick stew. It stays on the menu at barbecue joints, especially those in the Piedmont. As a New York Times reporter observed in 1993, we Carolina folk are busy eating Brunswick stew while Virginia and Georgia simply argue over it. The story also noted that, in a single issue, one small-town newspaper in Roxboro reported six notices of Brunswick stew fundraisers for a single weekend.
Ignore Virginians and Georgians: those Roxboro fundraisers are probably what Brunswick stew should be. The stew should take a village to make, and feed just as many. A small team, preferably Boy Scouts, church elders, or volunteer firefighters, should have taken turns stirring a massive pot or drum with a wooden paddle through the night. If it contains a few more ingredients than an opinionated food historian considers correct, that's fine. There's no Reinheitsgebot here.
When I first heard of Christmas and Easter Catholics, I realized I knew people who could accurately be called Christmas, Easter, and Brunswick stew Methodists. They arrived at the fellowship hall for the first time in months to fill a plastic bowl with Brunswick stew. They sat at tables featuring white sleeves of saltines as centerpieces and ate to their hearts' content, chatting and smiling. They appreciated Brunswick stew in a way I did not as a teenage driver. I have not wasted a drop since.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Take Us to Church"