Brunswick stew is a hearty stew traditionally made with squirrel, stale bread, corn, tomatoes and a selection of whatever vegetables are at hand. Apart from rural family tables and cook-offs, the traditional use of squirrel meat has fallen by the wayside and has been replaced by chicken.
Legend holds that Brunswick stew's origins lie in hunting parties held by a certain Dr. Creed Haskins, a 19th Century representative to the Virginia General Assembly. On hunting trips with friends and fellow legislators, Dr. Haskins would have his cook, "Uncle Jimmy" Matthews, prepare a stew using a day's harvest of squirrels. In 1828, Dr. Haskins hosted a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson and decided to serve Jimmy Matthews' stew as a fitting tribute to the craggy 'Old Hickory.'
The rally and the stew were hits; money was raised, votes secured and attendees returned to their homes with content bellies and recipes. From the 1820s and forward, the practice of offering versions of Matthews' Brunswick Stew at social gatherings spread throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and into other states.
It must be noted that similar squirrel stews were common throughout North America well before Dr. Haskins ever drew breath and before John Smith ever set foot on Jamestown. Indeed, the community of Brunswick, Georgia, also claims to be the birthplace of Brunswick Stew and has had its collective panties in a bunch ever since the Virginia General Assembly declared Brunswick County as the "Original Home of Brunswick Stew" in 1988.
Well, Virginians tend to proselytize when it comes to matters of their history and for the past 170-odd years, the legend of the stew's Virginian origins have taken root throughout the nation and the world. And like George Washington's supposed graffito at Natural Bridge, the memorial to Stonewall Jackson's disembodied arm and tiring family trips to see the goddamned Assateague horses, Brunswick Stew has sunk its roots deep into the mythology of Virginia. And alongside the venerable tradition of shad planking, Brunswick Stew has remained a staple of the political season in Virginia since the 1800s.
Recipe for Brunswick Stew, circa 1880:
3 slices bacon
2 squirrels, cleaned and gutted
1 onion, sliced
1 quart peeled tomatoes
2 ears corn, grated
3 potatoes, sliced
1 handful butter-beans
1 red pepper, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups stale bread crumbs
Add bacon, squirrels and onion to 1 gallon of water. Stew for about 3 hours. Then, add the tomatoes, corn, potatoes, butter-beans and red pepper. Stew for an hour, until squirrel meat easily comes off the bones. Take out the bones, then add the bread crumbs and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.