In the South we’re known for being fiercely defensive about our favorite culinary dishes. Whether it’s the case of their origins or who makes it best, we’ll get in a fight over something as fickle as a pickle—especially if it’s fried. So it’s no surprise that one of the gems of Southern cuisine, Brunswick stew, is at the center of such debate. Or really, debates.
The recipes for Brunswick stew vary greatly across state lines, but all of them have a few ingredients and methods in common. Usually, the stew is tomato-based with a variety of the South’s favored vegetables (like corn, lima or butter beans, and okra) as well as some type of meat thickening the chunky medley. The stew is always allowed to simmer for several hours, imbuing it with its signature smoky flavor. But that’s about where the similarities end. Three states claim ownership of the best, and original, Brunswick stew recipes: North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.
The type of meat that finds its way into the pot is a point of major contention between Southerners. Traditional recipes call for more gamey meats, such as squirrel, possum, and rabbit: some cooks, in fact, still claim it isn’t a real Brunswick stew unless you get to chew on a piece of squirrel. Over the years, however, Southerners have had to adapt to changing palettes—and, in some cases, changing laws. In Virginia, for example, chicken has replaced the traditional squirrel called for in their Brunswick stews. In Georgia, chefs once used the hog’s head and other less desirable parts of the pig to flavor and thicken their stews, but with stricter federal regulations on what constitutes food, Georgians too had to switch to other meats. In North Carolina, cooks rely on their local staple—slow-cooked pork—to add protein to their version of Brunswick stew.
Even the type of vegetables used in the stew can change across state lines. Eastern North Carolinians add starchy potatoes to their version of the stew, making it much thicker and heartier. In Eastern Virginia, cooks change the ratio of vegetables, adding more tomatoes, resulting in a thinner stew than you’ll find elsewhere. But no matter where you go, you’re sure to find the “best” Brunswick stew, according to the region and who’s cooking.
Beyond the matter of which recipe is best, Southerners also like to debate the origins of the savory soup. Although it’s likely that Native Americans first invented the basic recipe for Brunswick stew (especially considering that it’s made up almost entirely of indigenous veggies), fans still like to argue the point. The two major contenders are Brunswick County, Virginia, and Brunswick, Georgia.
In Virginia, the local story goes that in 1828 the personal chef of a Virginia legislator accompanied his employer on a hunting trip but was left with meager supplies when the venison he had brought along spoiled in the heat. Desperate for sustenance to feed the legislator and his guests when they returned to camp, the cook went on a hunting expedition of his own, scouring the countryside for squirrel. The resulting stew, Brunswick stew, would go down in history.
In Georgia, on the other hand, there is physical evidence of the original concoction. A cast iron cauldron sits upon a pedestal in Brunswick, Georgia, a plaque affixed to its mooring declaring it is the very pot in which the first recipe for Brunswick stew was developed on nearby St. Simons Island on July 2, 1898. And still others claim Brunswick stew as their own—including the first Brunswick: Braunschweig, Germany!
No matter what meat you throw in the pot or where you think it hails from, there’s no denying the facts. Brunswick stew, simmered, salty and smoky, is wholly and deliciously Southern.