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Brunswick Stew.

I’m a creature of habit. When it’s hot out I reach for a tomato sandwich slathered in Duke’s mayo, salt and pepper. When it’s spring, I want to eat new potatoes with local green onions, sweet like candy when sautéed with butter. And at the first hint of cold, when it’s 40 degrees and raining, the worst weather ever in the history of man, weather where it feels like the finger of Winter is reaching down from the gray clouds and tapping you so hard on the shoulder you want to crawl back under the covers forever, I get a taste for Brunswick Stew.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia we’d have a Fall festival in the parking lot of my elementary school every year. Old-fashioned cake walks, pony rides, games where you tried to bust the balloons with darts, yes, actual pointy darts. The fair itself was pretty low-rent, a lot of tables hauled out from the cafeteria with makeshift tarps over them, but I loved it because it meant our Saturday would be filled with something other than household chores or running to The Imp Peddler for clothing discounts. We’d play games, try to win a cake (and lose), get our faces painted, and look at the ponies because they cost too much to ride.

Then we’d wander over to where guys were stirring Brunswick Stew with paddles in big iron pots, breathing in the peppery, meaty smell, warming ourselves against the cold by standing in the steam being carried off by the wind. At least this is what I see in my rosy-colored nostalgia mind’s eye. We choose what we want to remember. In fact it was probably tired volunteer parents ladling already made stew into to-go containers for other tired, harried parents. Mom would buy quarts and quarts of the stuff and she’d serve it up for the next two weeks, stashing the rest in the freezer. Or at least it seemed that long. Three days feels like two weeks to an 8-year-old.

Just one problem. I HATED Brunswick Stew. I’m not sure if it was the taste or the fact between the ages of 5 and 11 I was served stew every night like some enormous Thanksgiving bird that wouldn’t die, but each time Momma waltzed over to the Stew Tent with her wallet out, I’d sigh and make a stank face. Great. More fucking stew. I remember one year she put two quarts on the roof of our car then drove off. They spilled into the road and I cheered. But no dice, she just gave me a look before putting the car in park and going back to the tent. In our house if it was Fall, we were eating stew. And I got a spanking for cheering.

For the uninitiated, Brunswick Stew is a Virginia tradition, although Georgians would argue against it. There are even arguments about “proper” ingredients. The stew I grew up eating was on the thin side, tomato-based, with pulled chicken, sometimes pork, lima beans, tomatoes, corn, and spices. Lots of peppery spices.

For many years I ate no stew. Left home and ate none. Was proud of the fact every Fall I didn’t have to stuff my face with stew. I’d see the canned variety in my International Safeway in their bright yellow cans trimmed in red and walk proudly past, opting for just about anything else. No stew for me.

Did I see it as poor people food? Too much like the homespun “vittles” enjoyed by my ancestors in their farm-based Shenandoah Valley community when all I wanted was to eat foie gras and just once try caviar with real blinis like I’d seen on “Great Chefs of San Francisco”? A reminder of my supposed “imprisonment” in my often dictatorial childhood where I never had a say and very seldom could voice an opinion? Did I just not like lima beans? It couldn’t be that because I longed for Muddy’s fresh-from-the-garden limas slathered in butter all winter long. So what was it? What fueled the stew disdain?

Even in adulthood, when I’d fully embraced my family’s Nelson 151 roots and began to enjoy homespun comfort food and disdain tweezer food my Brunswick Stew dislike endured. The Hubby and I went to the Apple Festival at Albemarle Ciderworks a few years ago, and they WERE stirring the stew with large wooden paddles. In large iron vats. But I argued the line was too long and why don’t we just get some goat burgers instead. They sounded delicious and exotic and I’d never tried them. Brunswick Stew loses again.

It wasn’t until this year that I found myself craving it. One Saturday afternoon, the very first cold one of October, I was closing out my garden for the season, pulling out all the dead plants and putting away the pots. The wind picked up suddenly and ran through the trees making the dead leaves rattle. I knew it would rain soon. And the chill from the wind cut through my hoodie and I thought out of the blue, “Sure wish I had some Brunswick Stew.” Just like that.

Ran inside to look up a recipe, but every one I found had about 1600 steps and 450 different ingredients. Blerg. It’s cold. It’s Saturday………my Sabbath. Maybe somebody in town? This is where having a blog comes in handy. All I had to do was ask the question. Someone mentioned the stew at the Apple Festival, but that wouldn’t happen for weeks. Then one helpful fan said those fateful words that changed my life, “Barbecue Exchange makes Brunswick Stew every day of the year.”

Um, wut? I mean seriously. . . What. The. Hell!? How did I miss this? I eat there quite a bit, drive past the place every time I go to Richmond, and I missed that Barbecue Exchange has Brunswick Stew? Every day of the year? Now I know I’m a BBQ Exchange addict. Admittedly. I’ve written about them a lot. But hell, when something’s good! So here I am again, recommending the Brunswick Stew at Barbecue Exchange. Yes you can order it in quarts. And yes, you can get it with cornbread. In fact, I highly recommend it.

What was that first taste like after so many years? Did I regress to my childhood self and make a stank face? Quite the opposite. Chef Hartman’s stew is thicker than what my Momma served up, full of big chunks of chicken, pork, and vegetables. What I love most is that first taste, an extreme sweetness followed by a deep tomato flavor which envelops your mouth before descending into a spicy, fiery afterburn. Really spicy, but not so much it prevents you from diving in again. This is the kind of spicy food I can get behind, even at my age. That sweet-to-fire flavor is so unique, and dare I say it? This Brunswick Stew is better than what I ate as a child. Much much better. Granted back then I despised all things stew, but imagine my adult self tasting my childhood stew. Yeah, I know, weird, but cut me some slack here. This stew beats that one all to pieces.

So yes, back then not a fan. But something came along my life’s timeline and flipped a switch. Sometimes all it takes is for the wind to change. Who knows, maybe I’m just a fan of memories. Nostalgia’s a funny thing. Tastes of food, scents in the air can instantly transport us. I still can’t walk into September twilight, smelling the sharp snap of cold and the wet dew that’s fallen on the grass, without thinking of Tuesday night band practice. And I can’t eat Brunswick Stew without thinking of elementary school and festivals. Even if there weren’t any vats or big wooden paddles.

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Fire, Flour & Fork. Part 1.

“The food our grandmothers cooked is the most important food we will ever eat.” —Chef Sean Brock

I hate going to conferences. Just hate it. It makes me twitchy. All my social anxiety rises up from the basement of my being when I have to do something like go to a work event alone, or make a phone call, or leave the house to run errands, or get the mail.

But conferences are the worst. The break-out sessions not so much. Presumably you signed up for the thing because of a interesting topic. It’s the between times that make me feel I’m back at the outcast lunch table. Milling about, smiling, attempting small talk like, “Wow, that was informative!” to total strangers without looking like an asshole until the next breakout session begins and you can find a seat in the back and bury your head in your notebook and go back to what you do best at conferences. . . take notes.

But I go. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve probably had 60 different jobs in my life and every single one of them had a meeting or conference deemed “must attend”. Plus when you’re a writer, if you don’t show your face at least twice a year people start thinking you’re a hermit or some kind of cellar-living mole man from a Stephen King novel. At least food events have food.

The first annual Fire, Flour & Fork  event in Richmond a few weeks ago had more than food. It had APPALACHIAN food. Chef Sean Brock’s food. Chef Travis Milton’s food. Throw in Chef Jason Alley of Pasture, one of my favorite folks on the planet, Christina Tosi, punk rock pastry chef from David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, and other assorted noteworthies from the region PLUS some of the great friends I made at the Appalachian Food Summit in Kentucky last spring (Ronni Lundy, Kendra Bailey Morris I’m looking at you), and just maybe this particular conference wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t. In fact it was pretty fucking epic. Almost as epic as that run-on sentence.

Another reason I don’t go to many food conferences is the same reason I stopped judging contests. And stopped ordering 10-course tasting menus. My aging tummy can’t handle it. But when I hear Chefs Sean Brock, Travis Milton, and Jason Alley are collaborating on an “Appalachian Memoir” dinner I do what any self-respecting homegirl from the Shenandoah Valley would do. I fast for three days and pack extra Mylanta.

And what a memoir! From my guesstimate 100 people gathered at Travis Milton’s Comfort that first night to celebrate the bounty of Appalachia. And when I closed my eyes and blocked out the ambient noise, the tastes and textures entering and warming my soul could’ve been from Nana’s and Muddy’s kitchens.

First Course:
Pickle plate with mustard pickles, icicle pickles, pickled beets, dilly beans, pickled cauliflower
Angel biscuits with Alan Benton’s ham and pimento cheese
“Sunday Go-to-Meeting” deviled eggs

Second Course:
Soup beans with chow-chow
Sour corn
Greasy beans
Squash casserole
Catfish and tomato gravy

Third Course:
Leather britches
White Eagle hominy grits
Mixed pickle
Kilt salad with Fall greens
Rabbit with black pepper dumplings

Buttermilk pie with warm pickled peaches
Sean’s Grandma’s apple stack cake
Green tomato fried pies

I could’ve made a meal from the biscuits, ham, and pimento cheese alone. Sean Brock’s pimento cheese is extraordinary. Box-grated onion adds a sweet creaminess so smooth it tastes like silky cheese pudding. The fermented sour corn is fried in bacon grease resulting in a taste that’s by turns, sweet, sour, and bacon-smoky. The soup beans instantly fed my soul with their warm, tender and hearty goodness, and the greasy beans tasted just like Muddy’s.

Leather britches are dried green beans strung into long ropes for hanging. Once dried they’re soaked, cut, and cooked down until soft. Usually with bacon grease. I couldn’t get enough of their beefy flavor and neither could my Buffalo-born Hubby.

The White Eagle hominy grits were prepared the old fashioned way. Wood ash is mixed with water to create an all-natural culinary lye used to strip the outer hull off the kernel. The resulting grits are gray in color and taste of pure corn essence, the corniest hominy grit imaginable. It’s a difficult process and it makes me sad to think I can’t always eat grits this way. From now on all the grits I eat will be less than. They’re that good.

What is Kilt Salad? Just any sort of green, wilted or quickly blanched, then doused in hot bacon grease. Yes Ma’am! Paired with Sean Brock’s rabbit and black pepper dumplings and I was slapping the table, crying out Hallelujah! Instant chair-church-dancing ensued. Light, airy dumplings with sweet, tender rabbit in a big stew pot. I need to eat this at least once a year from now on. Just to preserve my culinary sanity. Seriously, I will go insane if I never eat this again.

At this point the entire restaurant was pleading for mercy. Chef Milton’s brother even joked aloud how the line for the bathroom was ungodly long, and why not with all the beans and greens and pickles on the menu, resulting in gales of laughter. But no mercy here folks, for dessert was the final climatic scene to this memoir. Four-layer apple stack cake with what tasted like an apple, salted caramel glaze in between each layer. Holy mother of God. The Hubby took one bite and immediately proclaimed it the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Guess I’d better master the recipe. When the buttermilk pie and green tomato hand pies started coming out I looked around frantically for a to-go box. No way in hell was any of this going to waste.

As we rolled, literally Violet Beauregarde-ROLLED out of the restaurant and walked back to our hotel, I was content, truly content. One of those life moments so sweet you know it won’t last, so you breathe it in, take it in with every sense, so you can remember it later.

We strolled down deserted downtown Broad Street past Jefferson Loan (where Bo Diddley shops, remember that commercial?) and I thought to myself, “Yep, hometown proud. Those guys have done good. Real good.” Then burped. Loudly. In any case, I was happy, Pappy. It thrills me to see this kind of no-tweezers-in-sight comfort food celebrated. There’s a respect I have for the technical virtuosity of what I like to call “Tweezer Food”, no doubt, but I must admit, my love, lust, and longing are held most dear for the chefs who cook the way of my grandmothers. I’m a whore for dumplings and grits. Not to get too nutty-crunchy—spiritual-hippie on you, but when I eat Appalachian food, for just a moment, that spiritual gap, that hole, that emptiness we all carry around with us every living moment of every day, that gap that’s there because something in our lives is missing, is filled. For just a moment, one sweet moment, I’m whole. A rare thing indeed. And one I tend to chase when I’m hungry.

Is it nostalgia? After all, Chef Milton’s mother joked with me as a child Travis hated the garden, and now all he wants to talk about are “…beans, beans, beans!” I can’t get enough of beans, greens, biscuits, and cakes that remind me of my grandmothers. Even Northern-born Hubby ran straight to his favorite fish shop the minute we checked in. The one right next to his old apartment that serves up a fine 3-filet fried trout sandwich on white bread with ketchup. For $2.95.

Is it nostalgia? The simplicity of ingredients? Or just damn good food? All I know is what I feel. And after that meal, I felt not only FED, I had a twinge of excitement because after all, this was only the first event. There were about 50 more left to come. Anxiety? What anxiety? Good food makes conference anxiety all better.

Stay tuned for Part Two of my Fire, Flour & Fork adventure next week. . .

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When it comes to growing habaneros, I’m a badass. I suck at pretty much everything, but if you pin me down, this is one thing I’m good at doing. This year 8 plants grown from seed (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) produced 6 POUNDS of peppers. Yep, 6 pounds. The irony? I can’t eat them and neither can anyone else. Too freaking hot. Like, don’t touch your eyes hot.

Why do I grow them? Because I can. Because I’m damn good at it. I’ve been gardening for almost 20 years, and have seen my share of failure. Gardening is a finicky mistress. A delicate chemical formula, requiring the right seeds, enough sun, no overwatering, which if you’re very lucky will result in good eats. There’s nothing more frustrating than babying a plant, doing everything right, but because of the weather or the plant gods, or whatever, seemingly healthy shoots shrivel up and die, sometimes overnight.

But I can grow some damn habs. I’ve tried serranos (great in Bloody Marys) and jalapenos (great roasted into chipotles) but I always go back to my apricot fire. What can I say? Some people obsess about pumpkins in the fall, I obsess about the tiny orange wrinkled globes my plants seem to produce at will.

Every January I sit with the seed catalog and dream. Some years I get adventurous, trying on new vegetables for size. Heirloom tomatoes, okra, exotic lettuces. Half the time these plants end up weak and disease-ridden, or the rabbits get them, or they produce such a low yield I have to wonder why I bother? I mean 9 heirloom plants producing 7 tomatoes? What’s the point?

As a result, sometimes I just want to be successful. To have a huge harvest without a lot of work. Plus, I’ve had a rough year. I’m in need of some success, a nice pat on the proverbial back. I want that confidence boost that comes from looking at your garden knowing, “I did that.” Habs fit the bill. Not only do they grow abundantly, but the only pests I’ve come across are aphids, which are quickly dispatched by insecticidal soap.

I figured out a long time ago most vegetables can grow in pots. I grow everything in them. Instead of slaving away in the hot sun, weeding, spraying, babying my plants, I just step outside, take a quick look, trim here, spray there, and I’m done in 10 minutes. The plants reach almost 4.5 feet in height and the lush green leaves, white flowers, and low-hanging green and ripened orange fruit looks glorious in the summer sun right into Autumn. And 6 pounds of peppers later, I look like a rockstar.

But what to do with 6 pounds of apricot fire? I sent 2 pounds to a friend in Georgia who insisted he wanted an entire quart-bag Ziploc full of these beauties. Made sure I included instructions like, “Use gloves when cutting. Do not touch eyes. Wash hands thoroughly. Keep fatty foods like butter, milk, and ice cream about in case of capsaicin emergencies.” When you’re dealing with a pepper that contains 100-350,000 Scoville units, this is imperative.

The remaining 4 pounds are a mixture of orange and green habaneros. Both are stellar vegetables, containing flavors of fruit, herbs, and lemony acid, NOT JUST HEAT. Another reason I prefer habs to any other pepper. Orange habs start off as sweet peach or apricot on the tongue, quickly evolving into a smoky heat that builds until it is capsaicin fire. Just a little adds a fruity spice to chili, stir-fry, spaghetti sauce, salsa, hell anything you can dream up that might need some fruity heat.

Green habs taste green, for want of a better word. Herbal like a meadow. They taste like springtime smells, before evolving into just as intense a heat as the orange. Use green habs anywhere you think an herbal element might improve the flavor.

I dried the orange ones in my dehydrator. Wear gloves, then slice, remove the seeds (the hottest part, trust me the meat of the pepper is plenty hot), and dry on racks at 135 degrees for about 3-4 hours. Place in Ziploc bags in the freezer. Just one pepper is enough for an entire crock pot full of chili. The smell permeating the house during the drying process is an intoxicating perfume of smoked peaches, apricots, spice, and capsaicin. I’ve come to crave it every Autumn. I’m used to the smell, but I’ve had a lot of folks say it clears their sinuses.

As for the green habs? I was fortunate enough to attend a demonstration by Paul Virant of Chicago’s Vie Restaurant during Richmond’s Fire, Flour, Fork festival last weekend. He talked about his own recipe for fermented pepper hot sauce which I’m dying to try! Ferment the peppers whole in a crock with an equal volume of salt and water for 2-3 weeks. Then simmer with equal weight of peppers, the brine itself, and vinegar. As he put it, “NO bacteria is able to survive in THAT soup!” I’ll let you know how it turns out.

What fueled this adoration for fiery fruit? Why do I grow something I can no longer eat comfortably? Because 20 years ago, I could. Because 20 years ago, during the infancy of the Interwebs, I was part of a listserv called the ChileHeads. Hot pepper enthusiasts traded recipes, growing and preserving tips, jokes, stories, and challenges to like-minded people as part of their daily digest.

I developed my palate for hot peppers by trying out different types of hot sauce, discovering that the best ones aren’t just a blast of heat, but contain full flavors of smoke, fruit, citrus, even beer, wine, or chocolate. To this day I use Mild to Wild Habanero Barbecue Sauce and Chipotle Barbecue Sauce on everything from french fries to mac and cheese to quesadillas because the owner was a member of the listserv. The best hot sauce I’ve ever tasted was developed in Indiana by Jim Campbell, who harvests 40 acres of hot peppers on his land, and invites fellow Chileheads out to his farm to camp every Autumn where they can pick to their heart’s content. Screw picking apples on Carter’s Mountain. Like Peter, I want to pick peppers!

So yeah, I’m still a Chilehead, even though my ingestion of said chiles has greatly diminished. I’ll always grow them. I’ll always have them to give away. I’ve got 2 pounds dried in my freezer if you’re interested. Not only are the plants beautiful, and the fruity flavor addictive, I love the feeling of success I get from growing them. When life kicks you down and makes you feel like you can’t do anything right, it helps to have something to fall back on that you’re good at, and that you enjoy. To remind you you’re a badass.

I figure I’m carrying on a tradition. My Nana always grew lush fields of iris every year, and my Muddy was a genius with geraniums. When I’m old and gray, I’ll be growing habs. In a pot of course.

Pepper Drying Playlist?  K-Tel Super Gold Hits from the 70’s. Of course!

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