The historical marker alongside Highway 58 near Brodnax, Va., doesn’t exactly call attention to itself. The sign, which tilts to the right as if trying to prevent oncoming traffic from reading it, says in part: brunswick county, virginia/“the original home of brunswick stew.”
The sign’s location is apt. Like the marker, Brunswick stew is difficult to find, even in the county that celebrates its origin. Well, celebrates one of the stew’s origins, I should say.
I’ve launched this search down south after sucking down several sour, watery bowls of Brunswick stew in barbecue houses in Northern Virginia. There’s no way, I thought, that these bowls could have inspired a fight over the stew’s origins. But get this: Both Brunswick County, Va., and Brunswick, Ga., claim the dish as its own; each state’s legislature has issued a proclamation stating that it is the rightful birthplace of the stew.
If you drive south from D.C., the first incorporated town you reach in Brunswick County is Alberta, a burg with just over 300 residents and no obvious places to eat. I stop at the tiny municipal office to ask where I can get Brunswick stew, and a woman directs me to the Alberta General Store.
“The place next to the U-Haul?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “The U-Haul’s inside the store.”
In the back of the Alberta General Store, behind four aisles of pantry staples and six-packs, there is a patch of concrete called Jimmy’s. This is where Jimmy Crawford serves up, among the usual short-order standards, a Brunswick stew made by 71-year-old stew master Arthur Whitby. Technically, Crawford doesn’t feature the dish on his menu. You have to grab a to-go quart from the cooler.
Before he warms up my bowl, Crawford offers a demonstration of how to spot true Brunswick stew: He sticks a spoon into the container and says that it should stand straight up. Whitby’s chicken stew is indeed thicker than the ones in NoVa—spicier, too—but I have to admit, I’m still not a convert. The smoky, beef-based stew at S & S Barbecue in South Hill doesn’t convince me, either. It’s tangy, chewy, and altogether forgettable.
The Holy Grail of Brunswick stews turns out to be on the menu at the Cinnamon Cafe in Lawrenceville, just south of Alberta. The dish easily passes the spoon test. Hell, you could stand a Buick up in this thick-as-bean-dip stew dotted with onions, potatoes, lima beans, corn, and shredded chicken. It’s pungent, salty, and meaty—the very definition of a hearty stew.
Every few weeks, stew master Julian Moore brings his own seasoned cast-iron pot to Jim Truman’s Cinnamon Cafe and slow-cooks more than 50 quarts of Brunswick stew. Moore’s cooking method mirrors the one that has supported Brunswick County residents for generations. Stew masters, each affiliated with a social or religious organization, spend hours cooking up massive pots of stew for sale, to help some cause or another. “It is a celebration food and a communal food,” says Stan Woodward, a Southern folklife filmmaker who has documented Brunswick stew. “It’s a special-occasion food.”
Moore’s version also follows the classic Brunswick County recipe, which calls for chicken, the protein that has long since replaced the squirrel meat found in the first pot of Virginia Brunswick stew in 1828. But Moore’s stew toys a bit with tradition, too; he throws fatback into his pot, which gives his dish a rich and porky flavor.
Pork, it turns out, is the main ingredient of Georgia’s version of Brunswick stew, Woodward says. The first pot of Georgian stew in 1898 featured hog’s-head meat, though it now typically includes different cuts of smoked pork or pork in combination with other smoky meats, which explains why the stew tends to grace Carolina-style barbecue houses.
The three Brunswick stews I found in NoVa—each of which features smoked meats—seem to be closer in spirit to their Georgia cousins than to their relatives in southern Virginia. The stew at Three Pigs Barbecue in McLean is a bright-red, tomato-heavy concoction studded with chicken, ham, and veggies. It gives a new meaning to the old Monty Python term “watery tart.” The stew at Bubba’s Bar-B-Q in Falls Church at least doesn’t look like souped-up tomato soup. The burnt-orange brew of chicken, pork, and veggies is smoky and tongue-puckeringly sour.
The best of the local Brunswick stews actually comes out of the kitchen at Red, Hot & Blue in Arlington. The barbecue chain’s turkey Brunswick might sound dreadful, a low-fat version of the real deal. But the bowl, even without the usual volume of vegetables, serves up equal amounts of smoky, sour, sweet, and peppery flavors.
As tasty as RH&B’s version is, however, it doesn’t compare to Moore’s stew—and it likely never will. Simply put, real Brunswick stew is hard to find because of its painstaking preparation. No commercial stove-top version could ever hope to mimic the taste, texture, and complexity of a stew slow-cooked in a cast-iron pot.
The fact is, many commercial Brunswick stews are dishes of necessity. Just ask Bubba’s owner Mo Khalili, who developed his recipe at a barbecue joint in Tennessee in 1971. “What we used to do every Thursday, we used to clean out the walk-in,” he recalls. “All the leftovers were put in the Brunswick stew there….What was leftover in the kitchen, you can’t throw it away, because that’s profit.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.