Photo: justinlai, Flickr
A North Carolina town with no real claim to the Brunswick stew tradition is mounting its second annual Brunswick Stew Cook-Off this weekend, an event that's notable in the stew community for its apolitical stance on the popular dish's origins.
"There is a competition between Virginia and Georgia, so we're in the middle of a fight," Megan Masser, events director for the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce, explains. "I'm staying neutral."
More than 2,000 people sampled stews at last year's festival in Shallotte, says Masser. For audience members and the 22 cook teams – each tasked with preparing at least eight gallons of the thick tomato-based stew – it's the stew's flavor that matters.
"That's the most important thing," Masser says.
While stewmasters in neighboring states are equally concerned with how their stews taste, they're also caught up in the ever-contentious creation myths surrounding Brunswick stew.
The Virginia General Assembly in 1988 declared Brunswick stew a "celestial sustenance," decreeing that Uncle Jimmy Matthews, a camp cook for a Brunswick County, Va., politician, pioneered the squirrel-meat stew in 1828. Georgia's legislature fired back three days later with the competing claim that true Brunswick stew was invented in Brunswick County, Ga.
While the states continue to battle for Brunswick stew supremacy annually at Stewbilee in Brunswick, Ga., the Georgia Humanities Council's own New Georgia Encyclopedia cedes the title to Virginia. "In truth, the one-pot meal is credited to a number of places, but the honor (so far as the name is concerned) must go to Brunswick County, Virginia," the entry's author writes.
Ever the peacemaker, Masser points out each state has its own style of Brunswick stew. Georgia's stew, a fixture on barbecue plates, is chunky and pork-heavy. Virginia's stew, which typically incorporates game meat and is rarely served at restaurants, is cooked smooth.
As for the North Carolina version, Masser says it's "cooked with more chicken and butter beans. We're just looking for a really tasty stew."