Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Results: BBQ History Quiz #2

OK, so the polls have closed on Question #2 of the Barbecue History Quiz.  Time to see how everyone did.

Question: Many states claim to be the birthplace of Brunswick Stew.  In what state did it really originate?

   A. Georgia 66%
   B. North Carolina: 16%
   C: Tennessee: 11%
   D: Virginia: 5%

While Brunswick stew is a standard barbecue side dish in all four of the above states, Georgia is clearly the crowd favorite.  I can understand all the votes for Georgia, considering how ubiquitous the stew is in Peach State barbecue joints.  There's an entire city in Georgia with the name of Brunswick, and it even has a very specific material piece of evidence: the original Brunswick Stew pot, which is posted on a monument at the welcome center just outside of town.

If this pot is to be believed, the very first Brunswick Stew was made on nearby St. Simon's Island on July 2, 1898.  A mess sergeant, the full story goes, created the stew for a company of soldiers stationed at Gascoigne Bluff on the island.  He had no particular recipe, using whatever meats and vegetables he had handy, but it turned out so tasty that local residents started copying his formula.

Now, I'm not one to argue with an old stew pot, but the truth of the matter is that Brunswick Stew was in existence long before 1898, and it's original birthplace was not in the state of Georgia.

The correct answer, which only 5% of respondents chose, is D: The State of Virginia.

Partisans of Georgia and Virginia have hotly debated the claims over the years, but Virginia's version has the most documentary legs.

Brunswick Stew most likely was the creation of one James "Uncle Jimmy" Matthews from the Red Oak neighborhood in Brunswick County, Virginia.  A soldier who fought in the War of 1812, Matthews was a sociable rover and accomplished squirrel hunter whose squirrel stews made him a popular figure at picnics and public gatherings in old Virginia in the 1820s.

His recipe was quite simple.  He stewed the squirrels in water along with bacon and onions until the flesh separated from the bones, which were skimmed out.  He finished the stew with butter and breadcrumbs and seasoned it with salt and pepper.

After his death, Matthews was succeeded by Dr. Aaron B. Haskins as the local stew master, who was in turn succeeded by Jack Stith and then Col. W. T. Mason.  Each man brought his own innovation to the recipe.  Haskins was said to have added a touch of brandy or Madeira wine to the stew for flavor.  Stith introduced vegetables sometime during the 1830s, adding tomato, onion, corn, and potatoes.

By the 1840s and 1850s, Brunswick Stew was a fixture at election day barbecues in the Old Dominion State, a fact attested to by numerous newspaper and diary accounts of such events.

I can't be as definitely certain about the story of Uncle Jimmy Matthews as the originator, but the story has a decent documentary trail.  In 1886 the Petersburg Index-Appeal published a letter from “Tar Heel” that sketches the basic outline of the story.  In 1907, I. E. Spatig, the Commissioner of Brunswick County, Virginia, wrote a pamphlet that provided a capsule history of the county, and using information from letters he solicited from residents of the Red Oak District he traced the history of the famous stew, and the responses align with the story from the Petersburg Index-Appeal.  Now, even the Index-Appeal's story was some sixty years after the supposed events, and memories are murky and malleable, but it seems to firm enough to at least award the title to Virginia.  

BBQ Quiz Question #3 is posted now in the sidebar.

For more results from past questions, see Barbecue History Quiz Question #1

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