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After 30 years, Barbara Farrell knows--it takes a village to make a Brunswick stew.

Soulful Stew 

After 30 years, Barbara Farrell knows--it takes a village to make a Brunswick stew

Since it's the end of September, Barbara Farrell is getting out the postcards and the stamps. Within the week, she'll be sending out a brief announcement to a list that's been steadily growing over the last 30 years. A lot of people in the Triangle are on it, of course--along with folks from Burlington, Greensboro and Emerald Isle.

All of them have at least two things in common. Sometime during the past three decades, they drove past Merritt's Chapel United Methodist Church on a special Saturday afternoon in the spring or the fall. And since they did, they all want to know when Barbara Farrell is making Brunswick stew.

She's not the only one. Far from it: Over the next two months, volunteer fire departments, rural churches and other regional civic organizations will hold a series of Saturday stews and barbecues to raise funds for worthy causes. A few will get the word out with a line in the local papers. For most of them, some handpainted signs nailed to telephone poles or staked along countryside roads will do the trick.

That's really all the publicity they'll need. The stuff's that good.

And since they've been doing this for years, by this point, the locals know: You don't miss it when the Parkwood firefighters cook a stew. Or the church on Durham's Pleasant Green. Not if you want good eating--and a little something extra.

Brunswick Stew
4 oz. red pepper
4 oz. black pepper
1 round box (26 oz.) salt
12 lbs. butter
12 lbs. white meat, ground
12 gallons corn
18 gallons butterbeans
18 gallons tomatoes
100 lbs. onions
100 lbs. potatoes
210 lbs. chicken

Place chicken in pot, cover with water and boil. Add onions and potatoes. Add tomatoes and stir well at all times. Add butterbeans and seasonings. Cook for about 6 hours. Then add corn and cook for 30 minutes. Turn heat off and continue stirring until served.

Makes 75 gallons
Serves 600
(Recipe courtesy Brunswick Stewmasters Association, Brunswick County, Va.)

As with all folk technologies, everyone believes they invented it first. In a park on St. Simon's Isle in Georgia, a cast-iron pot is mounted on a marble slab whose engraved words assure us that the thick, savory meat and vegetable stew was first made there--apparently in that very pot--on July 2, 1898. Meanwhile, local historians in Brunswick County, Va., counterclaim that the stew originated there 60 years before, that it was invented--by a slave--for a Democratic presidential rally, and that it actually helped put Andrew Jackson in the White House.Now, of course, that urban legend's only valid if Gen. James Oglethorpe didn't actually cook up a mess of it instead on the streets of Brunswick, Ga., a city he was building at the time, in 1771. And, of course, if the lot of them didn't rip the whole thing off from a recipe Native Americans had been using centuries before that--the likeliest scenario of all.

Barbara Farrell can trace her recipe about half that far back, through her mother's side of her family. As a child, Farrell first remembers her grandmother, Francis McGee, helping her great uncle Bob Williams cook the stew on the banks of a spring where people in her community got their drinking water.

Not only does she still have the recipe. She has the pot it went in: heavy cast-iron, big and black.

"We would do it as a family," she remembers. "Everyone would pitch in."

It takes a village to make a Brunswick stew. It also takes time: two full days, not including the time required to plan the thing and purchase all the ingredients in advance."Two people to purchase the chicken, beef and pork; four to cook the meats ahead of time," Farrell says. "Ten ladies from the church all day on Friday to cut up the vegetables. The morning of, two people per pot times nine pots equals 18."

Yes, nine pots, made of cast iron, each holding at least 10 gallons. When they're not in use, it's important to "season" the cast iron by rubbing the pots with lard or shortening. And someone must cut and make the large oar-like paddles, "stir sticks," which the cooks must constantly use to keep the stew from sticking.

The recipe continues: "Two gofers to add new ingredients. Strong men to move the pots. So I need at least 20 people. Twenty-five's better."

After cutting the all the vegetables the day before, preparing and cooking the meat before that, after cleaning, reseasoning and moving the cast-iron pots over large gas rings, Farrell and her crew get together at 5:30 a.m. to start cooking. Compared to the old days, it's a late start time--another change technology has made, even here.

Farrell remembers Brunswick stew used to be an all-night, all-day affair: "My great uncle would put all the meat in the pot early in the morning, and it would take all day to cook," she remembers. Now gas heat and precooked meat means the stew will be ready to serve by lunchtime--after only six hours of continuous stirring the steadily thickening stew. Still, Farrell claims it's not the same as when wood heat warmed the cauldrons--and wood smoke added to the taste.

She'd like to give out the recipe. Honestly. She's just afraid your dishpans aren't the same size as hers.

"We don't measure the ingredients out in cups or pounds," she explains, in a guileless voice. "There's a set of containers, kitchenware and different-sized enamelware dishpans we use that have just been passed down through the family. I couldn't tell you exactly how big they are." As a result, most of the ingredients are measured out in dishpans: one size for the onions, another for the potatoes, and so on.

The meat's a bit more exact: 8 pounds beef in each pot, along with 8 pounds pork and two hens, "fat hens, because they add more flavor," Farrell notes. After all that, you simply "cook to taste."

One last thing about Brunswick stew. It's probably some of the sincerest food you will ever put in your mouth. A stew like the ones coming up means at least one thing: that a group of 20 to 30 people or more believed enough in the same thing to put two full days worth of hard labor into making the food you are about to eat. Almost all of them donated that labor to a cause in order to give you an opportunity to donate a few dollars to it as well--and then be nourished for your contribution in return.

That's why a Brunswick stew's an awful lot more than just a bowl of meat and vegetables. Actually it's an expression of what a community believes in, and the ways it comes together to nourish that belief--and each other.

Food for the soul, in short, as well as the body.

  • After 30 years, Barbara Farrell knows--it takes a village to make a Brunswick stew.

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