It doesn’t take too much driving around the southeastern United States on a fall Saturday afternoon before one comes across a church, school or volunteer fire department having a fundraiser. The fundraisers are easy to spot, as usually there is a…well, there’s a sign. And that sign usually reads something like, “Brunswick stew $4 a quart.”
Should one miss the sign, a group of people standing around a voluminous cauldron taking turns stirring its contents with a large wooden paddle is another sure-fire sign that someone is trying to raise some money (however, should they be dropping dead bats and kitten tails into the pot, you have probably stumbled across a witching ceremony and it is best to continue down the road). At the very least, it is a sign that folks are about to partake in some good eatin’ and you should try to sweet talk your way into the party.
Brunswick stew is a popular fundraising food because it is fairly simple to make, it’s filling, with a little going a long way and because it is really good stuff. People in the southeast consider it a comfort food and buy the stuff up by the gallon; usually buying a quart or two for immediate consumption and a couple of more to stash away in the freezer for the next snowy day.
Brunswick stew is best eaten with a column of saltines and a bottle of your favorite hot sauce. And though it is a relatively low-fat food, it will fill your belly for the rest of the day.
But what exactly is it?
Brunswick stew is similar to a very thick vegetable soup, with meat. It is cooked slowly over a small fire and stirred constantly for hours until all flavors meld together. Stews usually contain corn, butterbeans, potatoes, onions and stewed tomatoes. Most people usually use chicken, pork and sometimes stew beef when making this delicious regional dish (the region, however, is still not precisely defined as Brunswick County VA and Brunswick, GA each make a claim to being the namesake). Regardless of the meat used, I’ve yet to taste one that is less than phenomenal.
However, it was not until the other day that I tasted one that was authentic. You see, old timers will tell you that a true Brunswick stew contains small game animals such as squirrel or rabbit. While one can find about most anything one wants in Los Angeles, squirrel is not one of those things. I suppose I could have shot my own, but the city tends to frown upon civilians walking around parks with hunting rifles. So I opted for rabbit.
I had never cooked rabbit before. Not because I had an ethical problem with it, but rather because it just never seemed all that appealing. You see, fat equals flavor. Rabbits live on vegetables and exercise daily which results in a very lean meat. And if I wanted tasteless meat, I would eat free-range, grass-fed beef (For the record, I don’t support inhumane treatment to animals…unless, of course, it makes them taste significantly better). But I was cooking my annual southern feast and everything must be authentic. So in the words of Elmer Fudd, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit.”
But where could I find a cute and cuddly bunny rabbit that was ready to eat? Actually, I was not opposed to gutting and skinning one myself just to say I did it. In fact, after a little help from the World Wide Web, not only was I prepared to disembowel one of the fuzzy creatures myself, I was ready to try my hand against the best of ‘em. I had visions of catching a rabbit with my bare hands, breaking its tasty little neck and hanging its dried out ears from my rearview mirror as a warning to all other rabbits who dared cross my path. The one problem was that I could not find one. There were a few at the pet store, but I decided that would only be my last resort.
Eventually, I found the above beauty frozen in my favorite butcher shop. And I guess that was for the best. After terrorizing a few pre-schoolers with inappropriate Easter bunny jokes, I made my way home where I chopped up Bugs and threw him in my pot along with my veggies and everyone’s favorite bird, the chicken. Although I was forced to cook my stew on the stovetop, instead of on a small fire outdoors (the same city that frowns on shooting squirrels also frowns on building cooking fires on the sidewalks. I thought CA was supposed to be sooooo liberal?), the end result still looked and smelled similar to the stew I knew and loved as a child. But how would it taste? I was concerned that the rabbit might lend a gamey flavor to my stew. Then what would I do? It’s kind of hard to flush 19 liters of stew down the toilet (not to mention I’m sure CA has some kind of law against it). So I held my breath and tried it. Not too bad. Not gamey at all. In fact, it taste just like…well, we all know what it taste like because every meat seems to taste like this. Yes, friends, my rabbit tasted just like chicken.
Nonetheless, I was proud to help keep alive a dying tradition of using small game meat in Brunswick stew. Even if rabbit did cost me $5 more per pound than chicken, the experience was worth it. But now that I have done it, look for all future stews made by yours truly to contain 100% domesticated meat.