“It’s the fruitcake of stew,” said the young man in a chef’s hat, stirring a gigantic pot over a propane burner. His companions from the Altamaha Technical College Culinary Arts program laughed, but they all nodded their agreement.
That Saturday morning in November, I’d gone looking for the tiny Brunswick, Georgia farmers’ market, and instead stumbled onto a city-wide event, the Brunswick Rockin’ Stewbilee. The highlight of the event was the stew-tasting, 35 booths offering a sample of the stew that was named for this small city.
Or was it? One of the first people I spoke with was a woman who told me, “We do this every year, because Brunswick stew was named after Brunswick.” She laughed. “But it might have been named after Brunswick County, Virginia. They make a lot of stew up there, too.”
I asked the young man in the chef’s hat, “What’s in Brunswick stew?”
“Chicken, pork, beef, lima beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, spices…it’s a fridge-cleaning stew.”
At that point, I decided to talk to the chefs and find out whose fridge they were cleaning out. I walked up to a couple of guys and asked them, “I heard this is fridge-cleaning stew. If so, whose fridge are you cleaning out?”
“That would be mine, I guess,” said Tom, a retiree from the pulp mill who was on the stew crew of the hospital auxiliary. When he worked for the pulp mill, they used his recipe, but since they’d switched to someone else’s, the hospital was now using Tom’s recipe in the competition.
It was a lively competition. When you purchased a ticket, you were given two votes to cast for the People’s Choice award. There was also a Judge’s award, selected by local celebrities, and a Presentation Award. The teams represented not only restaurants, but local businesses, clubs, and a few dedicated families. From what I could tell, the entire town was there, plus tour buses full of tourists.
One local business was giving away schwag with their samples. “Are you trying to bribe the voters?” I asked. “Oh, no, ma’am, I would not stoop that low!” said the volunteer. He turned to hand a stew sample and a frisbee to a woman, saying, “Here, go taste that and then come back and give me your vote.”
I made my way around the booths, looking for the trophies indicating previous award-winners. One group, from the Ole Times Country Buffet, had several 2nd- and 3rd-place trophies. They were attracting a lot of attention by making the most noise in the place, ringing ear-splitting cowbells every time someone tasted or voted for their stew.
“We tried that last year,” said a woman from the hospital auxiliary. “It backfired on us, and we didn’t get as many votes as the year before.” When I cast my vote for Tom’s recipe, she picked up a cowbell and rang it rather gingerly. “There’s a sleeping baby behind you,” she said, by way of explanation.
I wandered from one booth to the next, tasting and asking questions, trying to figure out what makes an award-winning Brunswick stew. More than one person told me, “It’s about balancing the flavors.” Among the samples I tried, the chicken, pork, and tomatoes were consistent, but the flavors ranged from sweet to salty to spicy to bland. The top award-winner, from a group called Renessenz, was the sweetest one I tasted, and I suspected their secret ingredient was sugar.
That was before I looked Renessenz up on the internet. According to their website, “Renessenz produces a wide range of integral ingredients for fragrance, flavor, coolant and industrial intermediate applications.” Their site lists 47 products, unpronouncable chemicals ranging from “dihydromyrcene” to “tetrahydromuguol.” Perhaps their competition is using ingredients like sugar, salt, and pepper, but is the key to Renessenz’s award winning stew was something a little more intriguing?
The truth is, the secret ingredient in Brunswick stew isn’t really a secret. Everyone was proud to tell me their “secret”: “Tender-loving care,” “You know how Grandmother used to cook? That’s my secret.” The county commissioners admitted that they didn’t cook the stew, their staff did. “Our secret is teamwork.”
The simplest, best secret ingredient was that of Gateway Behavioral Health Services, a group that had won many awards over the years, including the People’s Choice, the Judge’s Award, and the Presentation Award. These folks had given their stew a name: Happy Stew.
“Love is the secret ingredient in our stew,” said a volunteer named Jeff. When I pressed him for details, asking how they measured how much love to put in, he replied, “We measure it by the width of unicorn hairs, and the intensity of the dreams of pregnant mermaids.”
Another volunteer, Barbara, chimed in, “It’s a tablespoon of happiness…”
“No,” said Jeff, “it’s half a tablespoon. We were a little too happy last year, we had to cut it back. People started a drum circle, started playing Age of Aquarius, and we decided that was just a little too much for around here.”
By then, I’d already cast my two votes, one for the hospital auxiliary and one for the students at the culinary college. But my real vote goes to the folks with the Happy Stew. It doesn’t really matter what ingredients you put in there, as long as you cook your Brunswick stew with love.
Wanna clean out your fridge? Try the Quick and Easy Brunswick Stew recipe on my food blog, the Foodie Gazette. It’s nothing like the ones in Brunswick, Georgia, but I can remedy that the next time I make it. I’ll add a full tablespoon of happiness.