Brunswick, Georgia, claims to be the place of origin for Brunswick stew. A twenty-five-gallon iron pot outside that coastal town bears a plaque declaring it to be the vessel in which this favorite southern food was first cooked in 1898. In truth, the one-pot meal is credited to a number of places with Brunswick in their names, but the honor (so far as the name is concerned) must go to Brunswick County, Virginia. There, according to an entrenched local tradition supported by a 1988 Virginia General Assembly proclamation, Jimmy Matthews, an African American hunting-camp cook, concocted a squirrel stew for his master, Creed Haskins, in 1828, the stew being named for its home county.
As the Georgia humorist Roy Blount Jr. quipped, “Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbeque pits.” Stews that combine meat and grain probably originated with ancient agriculturalists, in both the Old and New Worlds. According to the anthropologist Charles Hudson, Southeastern Indians made a stew from hominy and groundhog or squirrel, and also boiled bear and deer meat with fresh corn kernels and squash. Brunswick stew belongs to a family of southern stews, its closest relative perhaps being Kentucky burgoo.
Good-natured “stew wars” continue to rage between Georgia and Virginia. If Georgia acquired Brunswick stew relatively late (south Georgian J. L. Herring, describing a ca. 1880 July Fourth barbecue in Saturday Night Sketches , declares, “There was no Brunswick stew in those days”), the state has taken to the dish with great enthusiasm. Wild game like squirrel or rabbit is now often replaced by chicken, pork, or beef (sometimes in combination). Virtually any vegetable and seasoning can be added to the requisite meat, corn, and tomatoes, but onions, lima beans, and potatoes commonly make an appearance. In an unusual recipe from Toccoa, cooked-down maraschino cherries, lemons, and applesauce contribute a subtle sweet-sour flavor.
Frequently associated with barbecue and presided over by stew “masters” when made in quantity, Brunswick stew remains a customary feature of Georgia fund-raisers, political rallies, and family reunions like that of the Sproulls in Bartow County. In today’s age of individualism, the preparation and consumption of Brunswick stew as a social activity is now more important than ever in supporting community cohesion.