brunswick stew hearty chicken tomato
Brunswick Stew and I go way back.

Not as far back as the days when cooks added squirrel to the is-it-Georgian, is-it North-Carolinian, is-it-Virginian Southern stew, but far enough back to have tasted the Brunswick stew from Chowning’s Tavern in Williamsburg, VA in high school, and to have eaten gallons of canned Mrs. Fearnow’s Delicious Brunswick Stew (original recipe since 1919) in college. My mother and aunt made Brunswick stew (Chowning’s recipe) so often that their recipe boxes each had triplicate copies of the recipe carefully written out on index cards.

Chowning’s version has a very “dump cake” aspect to it. Basically, you cook the chicken till it falls off the bone, then throw all the vegetables into the broth (along with the cooked, boned chicken) and cook until done. This technique tends to irritate any cook (i.e. me) with any kind of culinary schooling or any experience with French soups. Why aren’t there any aromatics (thyme, bay leaf, garlic)? Wouldn’t the flavor be better if the onions were sautéed first, not just boiled with the rest?

Purists would probably answer that the simplified steps can be traced back to the rustic kitchens of the post-bellum South and the gi-normous quantities of Brunswick stew traditionally made for large gatherings and fundraisers. (For more on the subject, John Herber’s 1982 New York Times article “A Southern Tale of Brunswick Stew” is sublime.

I have a modern kitchen and I grow fresh herbs. I do not need gallons of Brunswick stew: a single chicken makes enough for eight to ten people, which is plenty for me. Sautéing the onions in a little olive oil (or better still, bacon grease) is an easy extra step. Tossing in a bay leaf and a couple of thyme sprigs is a cinch. **My** Brunswick stew gets made with flageolet beans, the closest thing I’ve found in taste and texture to butter beans in France, and carrots (like Mrs. Fearnow’s) not okra (a Chowning’s ingredient). The one traditional ingredient I do not alter or skimp on, however, is black pepper. Lots of black pepper. Brunswick stew, no matter how you cook it or what you add to it, should always have a peppery bite.

Brunswick Stew

1 5 to 6-lb (2.5 kg.) chicken, or 3 large chicken legs/thighs (1.5 to 2 kg.)
1 small onion, cut into quarters
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp. sea salt
3 quarts (3 litres) water)
2 tsp. olive oil or bacon grease
3 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 15-oz. (400 g.) cans crushed tomatoes
1 lb. (500 g.) potatoes, peeled and cubed
3/4 lb. (300 g.) carrots, peeled and cubed
2 cups (3/4 lb./300 g.) fresh or frozen corn kernels
3/4 lb. (300 g.) Frozen butter beans or flageolet beans

Bring the chicken, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, salt, and 3 quarts water to a boil in a large soup pot. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and simmer 2 hours.
Strain the chicken stock, and discard the onion and seasonings. Shred the chicken meat, and rinse out the soup pot.
3.Heat the olive oil or bacon grease in soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes, or until translucent. Add the remaining ingredients, the chicken stock, and the chicken, , and simmer 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Season with salt and lots of black pepper. Brunswick stew is best made a day ahead to give the flavors time to develop. Makes 8 to 10 servings.