Author’s note: I wrote this column about four years ago. Our Uncle Benny has since passed away and this is a tribute to him.
My brother (Alan) and uncle (Bennie) recently went on a social outing to South Georgia in search of adventure, entertainment and food, though not necessarily in that order. That’s what old retired guys do with their time and it seems that this particular excursion was quite instructive in the category of Southern cuisine evaluation. More to the point Alan was updated on one of the many ways that recipes of Brunswick stew can be ruined.
Our family is pretty much spoiled when it comes to this delectable dish because my grandfather and the aforementioned uncle can conjure up some of the best Brunswick stew you will ever spoon into your slobbering mouth. This recipe goes back a number of generations. Family lore says that its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt. We know this because in a sarcophagus underneath Fort Knox the original instructions are written down on papyrus. The formula has been kept secret all these many years and though restaurants all over the world have tried to copy it, none have succeeded and most have actually come up with concoctions that bring total disgrace to the very name of Brunswick stew.
To be sure the main ingredient is meat – in lusty proportions. Beef, pork, chicken and snapping turtle are all major components. Don’t laugh about the turtle because I’m not kidding. The remainder of that recipe includes such ingredients as corn, tomatoes, vinegar etc. but of course I can’t go into specifics lest the curse of the Mummy come out to haunt my dreams.
I myself am a connoisseur of this famous dish and have sampled the futile attempts of others to make an acceptable rendition of it. I’ve tried it in Texas where they ruined the stew by putting beans and chili powder in it. I’ve experimented with it in Massachusetts and found clams in my bowl. I’ve even been bold enough to try it in California where they used marijuana leaves rather than bay leaves to season it. Even here in Georgia where I am a regular visitor to roadside BBQ joints they can’t seem to get it right.
It was at one of these roadside honky tonk BBQ houses that my brother and uncle found themselves last week in the midst of their outing where they ran into a travesty.
According to my brother their noon meal went something like this. Bennie asked Alan where he wanted to eat and of course being the good Southern boy that he is, Alan quickly responded that he would enjoy going to a good BBQ place. Bennie actually knew of one that happened to be nearby so off they went. Upon arriving Alan asked Bennie “How’s their Brunswick stew?” This was of course was akin to asking the head chef at the Buckhead Ritz Carlton if the burgers at the Varsity were tasty.
Bennie shot Alan a sidelong glance and mumbled that he wouldn’t recommend it but perhaps Alan would like it. Alan responded by saying, “I’ve tried Brunswick stew all over Georgia and never had any I didn’t like.” Pretty surprising that Bennie didn’t put Alan out of the truck right then and there because Bennie’s extremely proud of the family recipe and is of the opinion that all others are poor impersonations.
So they pulled up in the dirt parking lot to the smell of pork cooking over coals and went inside to be greeted by the sounds of country music and a portly lady with a big smile. Alan ordered the BBQ plate with cole slaw, pickles, white bread, sweet tea and of course Brunswick stew.
When the food came Alan took a quick sip of sweet tea and then checked his plate. The BBQ looked and smelled wonderful but something was amiss with his order. He called the waitress over and told her, “I did not order spaghetti.” She quickly informed him that the goulash before him was Brunswick stew. Alan responded, “Excuse me ma’am but this looks like a cross between an Italian pasta dish and vegetable soup.” Turned out the stew was about two-thirds noodles, one-third English peas and no meat, all based in a watery sauce. When Bennie saw the astounded looked on Alan’s face he piped up, “I told you I wouldn’t recommend it.”
At that point Bennie was in the midst of a giggling fit and suggested that Alan ask the waitress for some mozzarella or parmesan cheese to go along with his linguini. Poor Alan had learned a hard lesson in the evaluation of southern cuisine from the Michaelangelo of Brunswick stew.
So as the man on TV says “Often imitated, never duplicated.”
Beware of those imitators and if you are interested in the best Brunswick stew on the planet don’t go to Texas, Massachusetts, California or even South Georgia – just call Uncle Bennie at 1-800-EAT-STEW. He won’t give you the recipe but he’ll treat you to a meal that you will not soon forget.
Another author’s note: The phone number is a fake – don’t call it because it’s a junk car dealer in Minnesota who will curse you when ask him for his recipe for Brunswick stew. I know this is true because some idiot actually called it the first time this column was printed.