RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/CNS) – The 80-gallon cauldron of Brunswick stew was empty after just an hour and a half on Wednesday morning, feeding members of the General Assembly and Richmond residents who arrived early enough to indulge in the thick, creamy dish.
The spicy and complex aroma drifted from the small tent positioned between the General Assembly Building and the state Capitol. People didn’t need directions where to go: They could just follow their nose across the Capitol grounds.
“Better get there early,” said lobbyist Mark Hubbard, who did not arrive early enough to receive a bowl of stew and saltine crackers, “And I do work for Brunswick County.”
Brunswick Stew Day is an annual event at Capital Square, celebrating the signature dish of Brunswick County, located in southern Virginia bordering North Carolina.
The stew is free to the public but mostly serves state legislators. Several pounds were packaged to take directly to the House and Senate.
“I think we needed two pots this year,” said volunteer Bernard Jones, a member of the Town Council of Lawrenceville, the seat of Brunswick County. Jones said this is the first time in his 12 years of volunteering at Brunswick Stew Day to see the stew run out so quickly.
Brunswick Stew Day features the first-place winner from the Taste of Brunswick Festival, which is held every October in Brunswick County. Last October, Clark Bennett received that honor (for the second time). And so he was the stew master for Brunswick Stew Day 2016.
The winning stew crew from the Taste of Brunswick Festival receives a small cash prize and a large wooden paddle to stir the pot. The winners also cook their recipe for the General Assembly on the fourth Wednesday in January during its legislative session.
The Taste of Brunswick Festival can have more than 30 stew crews competing, and every year the winning stew tastes different. B.K. Roberts, Brunswick County’s sheriff for the past eight years, is also a stew judge. At last fall’s festival, Roberts voted for Bennett’s stew crew because “it packed a little heat” – a quality the sheriff especially appreciates while judging stews.
Bennett’s stew crew for Brunswick Stew Day consisted of three friends: Caleb Hinkle, Michael Wright and Kyle Gee. They called themselves the Danieltown Stew Crew, from Alberta, Va.
Bennett’s father, Billy, who was also a stew master, tragically died in a car accident in 2004, but Bennett has pushed forward and continued his father’s culinary legacy. On a banner in the tent on Wednesday, the Danieltown Stew Crew dedicated the stew “in loving memory of Billy Bennett.”
Bennett would not disclose his secret ingredients. While cooking, he meticulously watched the stew for any imperfections, such as bruised potatoes or clumped spices. He would point them out, and one of his three sous-chefs would remove the offending items with a cooking tong. Bennett wanted his stew immaculate.
It should also be mentioned that the stew had been marinating for a good eight hours before it was served and had to be stirred constantly. “Or else it will burn,” Bennett said, “and I’m not planning on it burning.”
What’s the history of Brunswick stew? The story around the campfire goes like this:
In the 1820s, Dr. Creed Hoskins, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and several friends were out hunting in Brunswick County while their camp cook, Jimmy Mathews, made their supper. Mathews grabbed what he had and put it in a pot: squirrel meat, butter, onions and stale bread. The rest is history.
Some of the original ingredients have since been replaced with more common items, like poultry and vegetables. Brunswick County proudly stakes claim to the original birthplace of the thick, historic stew.
Just as oysters are to New Orleans, said Bobby Conner, project manager for the Brunswick County/Lake Gaston Tourism Association, the group that organizes Brunswick Stew Day. “Brunswick stew is unique to Virginia.”
But as a location, the word Brunswick is not unique. There is a Brunswick County in North Carolina and a city named Brunswick in Georgia.
“Georgia always wants to take credit for Brunswick stew,” laughed Lawrenceville Mayor Bill Herrington, who volunteered his time at Wednesday’s event. But rest assured, he said, Virginia is the real birthplace of the stew.
Virginia legislators think so, too. In 1988, the General Assembly proclaimed Virginia as the stew’s “place of origin” and the stew itself as an “astonishing gastronomical miracle.”
“I don’t care where it’s made,” Bennett said. He said Georgia’s Brunswick stew contains more meat products such as steak, beef and Boston butt (a cut of pork) and has a very barbeque flavor. “The two stews are just different – pizza and noodles.”
Bennett began serving his stew at 11 a.m., and people quickly started lining up outside the tent. One early arrival was Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education. She is a “huge fan” of Brunswick stew.
Holton said she often travels with her husband – U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor – to Brunswick County, and not only for political reasons. “It’s mainly for the stew,” Holton admitted, laughing.
The General Assembly officially established Brunswick Stew Day on the Capitol grounds in 2002 by passing House Resolution 2. It was sponsored by Del. Tommy Wright, who is from Lunenburg County, Brunswick’s next-door neighbor.
Wright dropped by the tent on Wednesday to stir the pot, literally, and, of course, enjoy a cup of stew.
“We all at the General Assembly really look forward to this,” Wright said, smiling. “We intend on doing this forever.”
Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.
For more Virginia General Assembly coverage, visit the In the Rotunda section.