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The Forgotten History of Brunswick Stew

The Forgotten History of Brunswick Stew

Bet you can’t guess what the connection is between Lake Tobesofkee near Macon, GA and Brunswick Stew.

First we will provide you what Wikipedia says then get onto the real history of Brunswick stew:

Brunswick stew is a traditional dish, popular in the American South. The origin of the dish is uncertain, but it is believed to have been invented in the early 19th Century by a plantation cook named Danny Mears. Two places compete for originating it, in addition to claims to a German origin.

Brunswick County, Virginia and the town of Brunswick, Georgia both claim to be the origin of the stew.  A plaque on an old iron pot in Brunswick, Georgia, says the first Brunswick stew was made in it on July 2, 1898, on nearby St. Simons Island.  A competing story claims a Virginia state legislator’s chef invented the recipe in 1828 on a hunting expedition. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, in her Cross Creek Cookery (1942), wrote that the stew, said to have been one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, may have come from the original Brunswick: Braunschweig, Germany.”

Really? . . . all the ingredients in Brunswick stew, except okra in some recipes, are vegetables indigenous to the Americas, and yet the Germans invented it?  Don’t think so!

The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster
Season One – Episode Nine

The real cultural history of the indigenous peoples of the Southeastern United States is so much more interesting than those beloved English names that archaeologists give our potsherds.  One of the more intriguing traditions of Muskogeans was the community kitchen.  It was definitely in all Creek and Seminole villages of significant size and probably was a tradition of such peoples as the Choctaws, Seminoles and Alabamas.

Click photos to enlarge them.

A topah-sofke or community kitchen.

A topah-sofke or community kitchen.  It is a Muskogean word that roughly means “serving table-grits.  Of course, sofke is a dish composed of grits mixed with other ingredients.  Lake Tobesofkee and Tobesofkee Creek get their name from the Anglicization of topah-sofke.

The community kitchen was where feasts, meals for visiting dignitaries and in some towns, the meals of the Great Sun’s family were prepared.  It also functioned as a 24/7 fast food restaurant.   That’s where the ancestor of Brunswick stew comes into the discussion.

Any person, living in or visiting the town, could always grab a nutritious, hot meal at the topah-sofkee. Travelers or hunters, coming in during the wee hours of the night, were especially appreciative of the service . . .  especially because it was free.

The menus at these fast food restaurants were quite simple.  There were big pots of sofke and opuswv-fayatv (hunter’s stew) simmering on the hearths. On the serving board might also be found hush puppies, flat corn cakes (North American tortillas) and water.

Hunter’s stew consisted of whatever vegetables were available mixed with whatever meats were available.  After cooking slowing for many hours, the consistency would become identical to . . . Brunswick stew.   Now you know.

Did hunter’s stew contain tomatoes?

That’s a good question.  Authoritative references claim that the Southeastern Indians did not start growing tomatoes until they made contact with Spanish colonists in Florida.  That may or may not be true, because the same sources incorrectly state that the Southeastern Indians did not cultivate sweet potatoes.   However, certainly by the 1700s tomatoes would have been an ingredient of hunter’s stews in the Lower Southeast.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North American colonies is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina.  However, there is little doubt that the Muskogeans in Louisiana, Florida southern Mississippi, southern Alabama and southern Georgia had acquired tomatoes much earlier from the Spanish, even if they did not grow them before the Spanish introduced them from Mexico.

The most likely scenario is that various forms of sofke and hunter’s stew were common foods of Native American and African slaves. It is also probable that frontiersmen and soldiers ate hunter’s stew while visiting Creek towns.  Grits and “Brunswick” stew were staples  of the common folks long before someone on some plantation decided to give them fancier names.

BrunswickStew2

Making Brunswick stew on the side of a mountain

There are many family recipes for Brunswick stew.  To be true Brunswick stew, they must contain more than one meat, many vegetables, have a tomato base and being cooked slowly to a thick consistency.   My grandfather would typically use five or six meats – including wild game such as venison and rabbit – plus seven vegetables.  For the family reunion each year at the time of the Green Corn Festival, he cooked the delicacy for 24 hours in a massive cast iron kettle.  He stirred the mixture with a massive hand-carved wooden paddle.

I cooked Brunswick stew yesterday as a Thanksgiving dish.  Yesterday’s version had two meats, pork and turkey.  The vegetables were all from my magic biochar garden – dried red tomatoes, dried yellow tomatoes, dried sweet yellow peppers, giant Ford hook lima beans, niblet corn,  a few green beans, dried beans, a couple of mildly picante peppers and a some pumpkin – a thickener.   I also added a cup of apple vinegar and  a half cup of sorghum syrup.  The molasses takes a bit of the bite out of the acidic dried tomatoes.

The dried beans and dried tomatoes float on top when the ingredients are first mixed.

The dried beans and dried tomatoes float on top when the ingredients are first mixed.

As traditional in my family,  I started the fire at sunrise and cooked the ingredients over coals in a five gallon cast iron Dutch oven until sunset.  The walls of a Dutch oven are much thicker than an open cast iron kettle. Therefore, there is much less tendency for the stew to scald or stick to the inner walls. When ready to eat the stew will have a rich, brick red color as a result of the acid tomatoes chemically combining with the iron oxide of the pot.

I don't add the Fordhook limas until about an hour before sunset, so they won't get too mushy.

I don’t add the Fordhook limas until about an hour before sunset, so they won’t get too mushy.

This batch came out perfectly.  There was absolutely no residue sticking to the inside of the pot.    The Brunswick stew was a perfect companion to the smoked turkey cooked nearby.   What we didn’t eat last night was frozen into one meal containers.  Because of its acidity,  Brunswick stew keeps for long periods, when frozen.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

8 Comments

  1. About them thar sweet taters . . .

    Aho is the Creek word for Sweet Potato. It is one of several loan words from South American and the Caribbean languages, such as the word for Yaupon Holly, ase. During his last return to Santa Elena in early 1568, Juan Pardo, mentioned passing through the village of Aho (Spanish=ajo) which specialized in growing sweet potatoes.

    YET . . . all “authoritative sources” state that sweet potatoes were introduced to North America by white planters in South Carolina. Kind of like brunswick stew, the planters introduced to their neighbors what the local Natives had all along.

    Reply
  2. Yuchimicco@aol.com'

    My mother Peggy Page, b. 1912 often made this Stew – It was excellent and she probably got the recipe from Climax, Ga (Decatur county) where “Swine Time” is held each year and where my father Robert Page Jr was born in 1907. My grandfather Robert Page Sr, b. 1868 moved there in 1905 from Horry County, South Carolina. Decatur (Bainbridge) and Seminole (Iron City) counties in Ga was a central place populated by Lower Creek Indians in the 1600-1700’s until Andrew Jackson came along in early 1800 and led the push to kill or remove all Indians from their lands.

    Reply
  3. abbahawk@hotmail.com'

    hmm, always wondered why the atak hata, had to rename sofkee. My grandfather, he pronounced it “saftkey” . A guttural “Hebrew” sound on the K (as he did with coyote.). he cowboyed from Indian Territory into NE Texas, also called it as the chuckwagon cooks did “sunnabich” or in mextex/ladino fiho d’ perro or more formal ojo padillo. My grandmother, more polite called the “always stew” in English, kept a big pot on back of stove, always adding whatever leftover meat or vegetables etc to it. as kids we loved it as it was different ever time.

    Reply
  4. shawneeprof2@skybest.com'

    We often had Brunswick Stew when I was a child and my recollection was it was a stew made from leftovers basically. Just as you mentioned, after a holiday meal or a big company-coming-over meal, the next round would be Brunswick Stew suing the meat and vegetables left over or some new stuff added to the meat that remained

    Reply
    • Hey Don, that’s what a lot of people are telling me. It make sense that Brunswick stew was a staple food item for pioneers . . . not something created by a Southern Planter.

      Brunswick Stew was deeply associated with the Green Corn Festival and the annual family reunion in our family. That points to its Native American roots.

      Reply
  5. ginger@deepfriedkudzu.com'

    Are you familiar with Ronni Lundy’s new book ‘Victuals’ and her comment to Indy Week, “What no one is saying is that Brunswick stew was created by a Native American woman who you will never know! What was written about our history was largely written by men who concentrated on the meat on the table… “? Do you know what woman she is referring to? Thank you (here’s the link to the interview: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/at-the-heart-of-appalachian-food-with-author-ronni-lundy/Content?oid=5072841

    Reply
  6. ginger@deepfriedkudzu.com'

    I phrased my question incorrectly. What I mean to have written is that since mention the community kitchen, did women do ALL the work in the kitchen or did men contribute the labor there as well? I’m just wondering what the distribution of labor was in regards to cooking for the group. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Ginger, without a time machine, I can not generalize about the past, but with my grandparents, all cooking of Brunswick stew and smoking/barbecuing of meats for large get-togethers, such as family reunions, were done by the men. My grandfather passed his brunswick stew recipe to me, not my sister. On the other hand, I imagine the vegetables and various corn dishes were cooked by the women.

      Reply

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