Over the next week or so, stew cooks will be trying to remember the combinations to their safes in order to get to their super secret Hopkins County stew recipe and sneaking off to get those special ingredients they feel will assure them of title and trophy in the World Championship Hopkins County Stew Contest.
Officially, Saturday, Oct. 27, will mark the 43rd year for the contest, but Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce President Meredith Caddell says different people have different ideas about just how many stew contests have been held.
“There's a lot of discrepancies,” said Caddell. “Some people will say it is the 45th, and some people will say they've cooked stew since the 1800s, but as far as our records indicate, this will be the 43rd year of the stew contest.”
Just a couple of years back, the stew contest moved back to its original location in Buford Park after having been held on the grounds of the Hopkins County Regional Civic Center. The move, Caddell said has enabled a number or changes to the event.
“I think they had seven or eight stew cooks the first time, and I've heard that back in the 1980s there were 30 pots or so,” she said. “Now, we are somewhere like 140 to 145 stew pots, so we've definitely grown the stew contest over the years.”
The chamber executive said she would never forget the first year she cooked.
“I stepped in a fire pit. It was dark, and I was trying to maneuver my way around to go talk to other stew cooks,” she said. “I literally stepped in the ashes of the fire pit trying to get to another site.”
Meredith then decided the layout of the stew cookoff site was dangerous with people walking through stew sites and fires and it just did not work. It was in need of a different way to set out the stew sites, and Buford Park seemed to fit the bill.
“People seem to like the sidewalk and with rain, it always helps to be able to stay on the sidewalk rather than be in the mud,” she said.
The park lends itself to the stew cookoff in a number of ways.
“People can start at one point on the stew grounds and they can truly make their way all the way around and see every cooking team that's there,” she said. “They don't miss anybody. There is no searching somebody out If they just start at one end, they can make their way around the park and see everybody that is there.
“I just think it's laid out really convenient,” she said. “I mean, who knew 43 years ago what it was going to turn into.”
Along with trying to cook up the best stew, a majority of the cooks also spend considerable time making their cook sites unique, and that adds to the fun.
“You have the authentic, I mean you have the Chris Gibbons of the world and the Don Meeks of the world searching the year around for things to add to their campsite,” she said. “I love to visit their campsite to see what their newest signs are.”
Caddell said another really neat campsite will be added this year.
“Darrell Roach and Roach Construction, they have completely restored an old wagon from Sulphur Springs,” she said. “They found all the pieces and parts in the ground buried out at their place and have completely taken every piece and completely restored it.”
Just to accommodate the size of the restored wagon the team has to take an adjacent cook site.
Then, she said, there people who take the stew contest to an entirely different extreme and have a totally different approach.
“This is always fun,” she said. “Professional Land Title has done everything from a 60s theme ... just something to decorate and do something different.”
Some of the sites may have a patriotic theme, while others may be decorated for the Wildcats or whatever school they may support.
“That's always neat to me, to come out early in the morning and wander around the grounds and see what everybody has done,” she said. “To me, I think it's neat too, to go out and see their pot hangers. Some of the people have gotten really creative. I talked to Legacy Ag Credit and they said theirs is all 'pimped up' and it's just fun to see how excited and determined people are trying to win each year.”
Something else new has been added to this year's stew.
“This year for the first time, we will have vendors,” the chamber president said. “They are going to be set up on the south side of Buford Park on the new walking track. That's something totally different we've never done before, but we have had huge, huge requests.
“So, we thought, why not?” she said. “Why not offer people the opportunity to shop around while they are waiting on stew to be finished or they get their bowl of stew and want to walk to the vendor sites.”
Some 25 vendor sites have already been reserved for the contest and will offer more to do and a reason for people to stay in the park a bit longer.
Some of the cooking teams have already been by the Chamber of Commerce office to steal a glimpse of this year's trophies and talk about which trophy they are going to try to take home.
On Saturday morning, Oct. 27, stew cooks will begin turning their [hopefully] prize-winning stew for judging. Minutes later stew will be served and the judges decisions will be announced about noon.
If you are interested only in sampling the stew, you can do so to your heart's content.
“All-you-can-eat stew for only $5 and that includes cheese and crackers,” Caddell said. “Kids under 5 are free.”
At 5 p.m. stew will be sold by the quart for $7 to take home.
“Really, it's a big deal in Sulphur Springs and Hopkins County,” Caddell said. “So, it is such a fun time.”
History of the Stew Contest
The World Champion Hopkins County Stew contest was started by Rod Henderson (now deceased), who was active in the Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce for a number of years and was later named Manager of the Hopkins County Regional Civic Center.
The year was 1970 and there were 12 cooking teams in that first contest. This year we expect over 130 cooking teams to enter. Hopkins County Stew, however, goes waaaaaay back to the 19th century---We only made it a contest in 1970. There are several theories of how Hopkins County Stew got started, but the most popular one was that it began with school "closings". In the Fall of the year, each year, county schools (at one time there were over 100 schools in Hopkins County) would close at cotton picking time, for a period of about six weeks, so the students could join their families in harvesting the cotton crop. Dairying replaced cotton as the main agricultural enterprise in the mid-1930's and remains strong today, along with equine, beef and forage crop farming. Anyway, the last day of school, families from across the district would gather at the school and cook a noon meal (a stew) in a cast iron pot and everyone would bring whatever ingredients they had to put in the stew. Most of the meat at that time was probably squirrel. (Note): Hopkins County Stew is akin to what is commonly referred to as "Irish Stew" and may be an offshoot of that brought to this country by early Irish immigrants.
– Information from the Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce
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