While in a couple of North Carolina supermarkets recently, I came upon some Brunswick stews in the canned vegetable/pasta aisles. The name rang a bell with me, so I bought the two that I found. Specifically, the Castleberry's brand and the Mrs. Fearnow's varieties.
Brunswick stew is the center of a culinary debate. Or a half serious feud, because its origins are shrouded in mystery. But we'll get to that in a bit--for now, what is Brunswick stew? Traditionally it's a stew made with small game meat, such as squirrel or rabbit, with a tomato base, local beans, and assorted vegetables and spices. In the last hundred years or so, the tradition was relaxed somewhat, and now it's mainly made with chicken or beef substituting for the game meat. (Although some Brunswick stew purists might disagree, and demand the game meat to be "official.")
Before we get into the historical claimants to the Brunswick stew invention, something should be stated. A Brunswick stew isn't the most complicated, or weird innovation. Mixing the game you caught with whatever vegetables you had on hand, with a tomato base, and stewing the lot isn't that strange or intricate. It's very possible, probable even, that various people came up with this type of thing independently, over various time periods and locations. So even if really compelling historical proof is ever located for a claimant, they might not really be the first person ever to have cooked up something like this.
With this in mind, let's proceed. Some say the Native Americans in the area that's now the Southeast U.S. first made the stew. Some tribes didn't have access to tomatoes until the 1700's or so, but they could have made some from then on. One website I consulted noted a claim that John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist Church, invented the stew while attempting to convert the local Indians in the area which is now Brunswick, Georgia in the early 1700's. Next up, some claim that Brunswick stew was invented on a hunting trip along the Nottoway River in Brunswick County, Virginia, in 1828. Specifically by James (Jimmy) Matthews, the cook for Dr. Creed Hoskins, who served in the Virginia State Legislature. Another source says that a plantation cook, Danny Mears, developed the stew in the early 19th century, possibly also in Virginia. An article in the (Virginia) Alexandria Gazette in 1849 supposedly detailed the stew. However, the American state of Georgia disagrees. They claim that the stew was invented on June 2, 1898, on St. Simons Island, just off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia. (Oddly, given the precise date, they don't mention who invented it.) The town of Brunswick, Georgia has erected a monument to Brunswick stew, with a a 25 gallon iron pot attached to the top of it, to commemorate it. Brunswick Georgia once billed itself as the "Shrimp Capital of the World," too, so they were being a little greedy about food-related accomplishments. They hold an annual Stewbilee, wherein dozens of groups compete in a contest to make the best version of the stew. Finally, the dish is very popular in North Carolina, and there's even an outside claim that the town of Brunswick in that state was the first to make it.
But that's not all. Is this yet another example of American ethnocentrism and arrogance? Reportedly a Brunswick-style dish was mentioned in association with Queen Victoria in mid to late 19th century England, and others assert that the stew was really invented in Braunschweigen, Germany, the "Brunswick" of that country.
So who's right? Or at least, who seems to have the best claim? Near as I can tell, from my admittedly half-assed online research, most people seem to think that Virginia seems to have the most corroborating historical evidence. But before any Georgia-based, or Germany-based, or English-based, or North Carolina-based, or Native American-based readers send in their angry comments, remember that it is not 100%, or completely conclusive. (And if anyone can point me to good evidence for any claimant, please send me the info and I'll check it out.) Also, in 1988 the Virginia general assembly issued a decree certifying that Virginia is the official inventor of Brunswick stew, on what must have been a slow day for political legislature.
But enough about the (alleged) history, how did the food actually taste?
1) Castleberry's Brunswick stew. Meat base was chicken and beef. Looked like a reddish stew. Pretty well blended--couldn't really pick out individual veggies. Tasty. Kind of reminded me of chili, both from the texture and flavor. Nice spice bite to it--not too strong, but enough to improve it.
2) Mrs. Fearnow's Brunswick stew. Meat used was chicken. Also looks like a reddish stew, obviously from the tomato. Unlike the other there were many large pieces of vegetables (potato, corn, carrots, lima beans) visible. This one was okay, but not as good as the Castleberry's. I noticed the lack of spice in this--it was rather bland. The texture was more like a regular stew, also, which is not a positive aspect for me.
I happened to be home while I was trying these, so both my father and I sampled both. We even did it without knowing which brand we were eating, with the help of my mother, to try to be semi-scientific about it. Both of us agree that the Castleberry one was more like chili, and more spicy. However, I saw this as a positive, while my dad disagreed totally. So I guess if you like more traditional type stews, with little spice bite, you'll like the Fearnow's, and if not you'll prefer the Castleberry's. (And if you don't like meat, and/or tomato, you may very well hate both.)
I should note that Castleberry's was founded in Augusta, Georgia, and Mrs. Fearnow's in Mechanicsville, Virginia, so maybe they dovetail nicely with the two main state claimants for the first Brunswick stew. (The info I saw said Mrs. Fearnow's started making their stew in the 1920's, and Castleberry's was opened in 1926. So to continue our history of feuding, I'm not even sure which popular canned version of the stew was technically first.)
Therefore, while it seems like Brunswick County, Virginia, may have been the first Brunswick stew maker, I liked the Georgia-style one better. I also learned that restaurants in North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia sometimes have the stew on their menus, although I can't recall ever seeing it. If I get the chance I'll try to order it, and update this post. Surely professionally prepared, restaurant style Brunswick stew would be tastier than the canned stuff I had, which I microwaved. And I'd be even more eager to try the so-called authentic kind, made with game like squirrel, which is an animal flesh I haven't eaten yet.
I'll end on an astonishing claim. The real inventor of the Brunswick stew was a time-travelling Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show, in the area later known as New Brunswick, NJ, in 3074 B.C. (citations definitely needed, but not forthcoming).