On the Origin of Brunswick Stew Species

For those of you who believe in evolution, I thought you might be interested to learn about the origin of Brunswick Stew, that classic accompaniment to Eastern North Carolina barbecue.  But then it seems Brunswick Stew’s story is as much a creationist one as it is a story of evolution.

As served today in North Carolina barbecue joints, Brunswick Stew’s recipe varies significantly from place to place.  Common ingredients include chicken, pork, corn, lima beans, tomatoes and more.  The consistency ranges from quite soupy to rather thick, and the texture from chunky to almost baby-food soft.  Even the color ranges from bright tomato red to a sickly brownish-gray.

Although present day species of Brunswick Stew have evolved over the years to adapt to whatever niche they fill, with ingredients varying widely from region to region and cook to cook, all the Brunswick Stews seem to have a common ancestor.  Or maybe two.  The origin of Brunswick Stew remains in dispute roughly a century and a half after it emerged from the primordial soup of southern culture. 

One place Brunswick Stew almost certainly did not originate is Brunswick County, North Carolina.  Though it is hard to escape Brunswick Stew when chowing down on barbecue anywhere in Raleigh or east, where it is right up there with slaw as one of the quintessential side dishes, the stew originated beyond the NC state line.  According to Rufus Jarmon in “Dixie’s Most Disputed Dish,” an essay featured in Corn Bread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue, Brunswick Stew either originated in Georgia or Virginia. 

Some Georgians argue that Brunswick Stew was created in the early 1700s when “followers of John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism, were converting the Indians near the present site of Brunswick, Georgia.”  Another Georgia-centric theory offers that a soldier working in the mess hall at a fort on St. Simons Island, outside of Brunswick, created the stew in 1898.  Jarmon, however, suggests that the stronger evidence points to the stew’s true origin as being circa 1828 in Brunswick County, VA.  He singles out one man, “Uncle” Jimmy Matthews, the black cook who worked for state legislator Dr. Creed Haskins.  This theory is explained in more detail on Brunswick County, VA’s website.  Interestingly, neither Jarmon nor the website explain the status of Matthews’ “employment,” though given the era and the geography it seems likely he was Haskins’ slave.

Matthews’ stew, which featured locally hunted squirrel (or, “a free-range, organic, lean, locavore-friendly protein source,” as we might call it today) differs significantly from modern-day Brunswick Stew.  Not only did it feature squirrel, but the only vegetable included was the onion.  The Brunswick Stew that originated from Georgia, on the other hand, featured a “hodgepodge of meats and vegetables.”  Jarmon suggests that, perhaps, both creation stories could be accurate and that the stews evolved in parallel.  This “double big bang” theory sounds possible, so long as one is not averse to the idea of two creators… just don’t count on this theory being taught in the schools of Virginia or Georgia.

6 Responses

  1. well, since my wife is from Brunswick, Va i have to give my vote to them.
    a note, a lot of the older people there call it Muddle and if it’s chicken based it’s Chicken Muddle, Squirrel Muddle for squirrel based and so on.
    every holiday they give me quarts of it and i like it all, but it’s also one of those things that you really only like it from 1 source. my Brother in Laws Ruritan Club has my favorite, but they don’t used whole chickens, just breasts, so some people don’t find that authentic. id rather not bite down on a bone but i do agree that whole chicken and their bones add more flavor.
    some of her family thinks i really married her since she is from a town named after my favorite food. Although i LOVE Muddle, they don’t know that she’s lucky i never met a girl named Steak.

  2. HillboryJr, thanks for the story, that’s great. I met a girl named Steak once but she was a bit rare for my taste.

  3. […] than a year.  The store is located in the small town of Leland, which is in Brunswick County (no relation to the stew) just outside of Wilmington.  According to the article, “Beef brisket, ribs, pulled pork, […]

  4. I was born and raised in SE Va, a few miles from Brunswick Co, and my mom is from Wilmington, NC, a few miles from their Brunswick Co. I know that EVERY town and community here in SE Va has a stew pot and a stewmaster with a Brunswick Stew recipe. The only thing I have ever seen come from a stew pot in SE NC is Chicken Bog, a variation on Chicken and Rice. I lived in that area for a few years, and NO ONE could show me a local recipe for Brunswick Stew. Period.

  5. […] ordered the combination plate with a cup of Brunswick stew. Even though Brunswick stew didn’t originate from North Carolina, it is one of my favorite things to order along side a plate of barbecue at North Carolina barbecue […]

  6. some folks are way behind …..this thing went to the federalts in the late 90’s…………..Brunswick, GA won!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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