FROM MY KITCHEN WINDOW
CINDY WELCH, Chef, caterer and food enthusiast
An Ode To Stew
-Virgina S. Wood, 1930
Oct. 14, 2008 - At first blush it would seem that Ms. Wood wrote her poem about our great Hopkins County stew. All the classic ingredients are there: Chicken, an iron pot, tomatoes, onion, corn, butter beans and Worcestershire sauce.
But wait ... butter beans? Worcestershire sauce? And where is the chili powder?
Actually, the stew in Ms. Wood's poem is the New Brunswick variety from Brunswick County, Virginia, home of the annual Brunswick Stew Festival.
How do two counties so far apart share such a similar stew heritage?
As I began to read about the histories of New Brunswick Stew and Hopkins County Stew, I was fascinated to see how both have changed, with ingredients added or taken away, depending on who was cooking and what fixings were available. What has not changed is the fact that communal stew is an integral part of both of these counties.
Communal stews fed our ancestors and they continue to sate the appetites of groups around the country. These one-pot meals are a product of the resources available in each region and the traditional recipes passed down through families and friends. These recipes, or their close cousins, migrated across the country as society became more mobile.
In fact, if you study the soups and stews of a region, you learn a little bit about its people, agricultural harvests and available meat and wild life sources.
The East Coast has chowders rich with local seafood, cream, potatoes and corn. They are heavily influenced by the sea's bounty and the crops given to settlers by the Native Americans.
California has cioppino, a seafood stew created in San Francisco by Italian immigrants. It's a wonderful combination of Italian spices, wine, garlic and local seafood often served over pasta.
In the Northwest, stew is often made with wild game like bear, elk and venison.
Southwestern cooks, with their ranching heritage, favor beef stews like chuckwagon stew, caldo and carne guisada. These stews have larger chunks of meat and rich, thick gravies.
In my home state of New Mexico, diners enjoy posole, a stew made with meat, chiles and hominy, or stews made with green chile instead of red.
Across the northern United States, the Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Irish and Italian immigrants brought stews from their homelands and changed them to use the corn, chicken, pork and available wild game, including squirrel.
Squirrel meat also appears to have been a popular choice for Southern stews.
Kentucky's famous burgoo, served in Derby country, is now made with mutton, but had its origins with squirrel, as did Hopkins County Stew. While reading stories and archives about Hopkins County, I ran across several quotes from Hopkins County residents in the early 1900s who swore they would never substitute chicken for squirrel meat.
Of all the stews across the country, however, Hopkins County Stew seems to share a heritage most closely with Virginia's New Brunswick Stew. Thick with chicken, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and corn, the New Brunswick variety was also traditionally cooked over a fire in large iron kettles. It was served at church functions, fundraisers and school events.
Like their cousins in Hopkins County, the residents of Virginia hold an annual "Brunswick County Stew Cook-off," where the participants must be certified stew-masters.
Brunswick Stew, however, differs from Hopkins County Stew two ways: it is often cooked until it is the consistency of porridge. It also has what Hopkins County Stew devotees would consider two unusual ingredients: Lima or butter beans replacing cream-style corn as the thickening agent, and Worcestershire sauce providing the kick instead of chile powder.
Whether it comes straight from Virginia or by way of Tennessee, and whether it is served at a festival, in the local school cafeteria or at the family table, Brunswick Stew and Hopkins County Stew continue the great tradition of communal stews, cooked by local folks and enjoyed by all.
As former Hopkins County resident Odell Tarpley said, "Some woman who liked to put on airs -- you know the kind -- said to my Mama once, 'Only po' folks put all their eats in one pot.' She just didn't know what is good."
For the past 20 years, Cindy Welch has been involved with all aspects of cooking, including formal culinary training, experience as food service director for First Baptist Church, a personal chef and owner of Cindy's Casa Cuisine. Cindy's favorite hobby is "providing delicious food for the people of Sulphur Springs." Her columns cover all aspects of the cooking experience.