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.