RICHMOND, Va. — The rich aromas of Brunswick’s famous stew pour from the tent, tempting passing legislators to poke their heads inside Wednesday, eager for Stew Day to begin. But they’re shooed away like children peeking under the tree on Christmas Eve.
When Stew Day begins, it’s a hustle of activity. Long lines of clerks and lawmakers stretch and wrap around corners. Legislative pages — the smartly dressed boys and girls who run errands for members of the General Assembly — scurry out of the tent to deliver containers of stew to legislators who couldn’t make it but desire a little taste of Brunswick.
Usually, politicians are hungry for change, but today, they’re hungry for stew.
Besides legislators, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring dropped by, happily cradling their own steaming cups of stew. Even Gov. Ralph Northam took a turn stirring the pot.
“It’s a great tradition. Wonderful people,” Fairfax said. “We’re huge fans of not only the stew but the people of Brunswick.”
Brunswick Stew — named for Brunswick County, along Virginia’s border with North Carolina — traces its origin to a hunting party in 1828. In 2002, the General Assembly passed a resolution officially designating the fourth Wednesday of each January as Brunswick Stew Day.
The resolution called the stew a “gastronomic miracle” and “celestial sustenance.”
“Brunswick stew is a big thing in the rural areas,” Del. Thomas Wright, who introduced the legislation back in 2002, said, “It was something that I thought deserved recognition.”
Most of the people in the tent where the stew was being served Wednesday could recite the dish’s history.
Inside the tent, four burly men stood around an elevated, 85-gallon cauldron overflowing with a hearty stew so thick that the paddle used to stir it sticks straight up at attention. The men pushed that paddle around as if it were second nature. And to most of them, it was.
It took five cooks to make the stew, starting at midnight. They cooked all the way through the morning until 8:30 a.m. At the helm of it all was Tracy Clary, the stewmaster.
Clary was the 2017 winner of the Brunswick Stew Cook-Off, a competition ordinarily held each October to determine which recipe of Brunswick stew would reign supreme. The winner is crowned “Stewmaster” and provides the stew for Brunswick Stew Day at the Virginia Capitol in January.
Unfortunately, last October’s cook-off was canceled due to inclement weather. But luckily, Clary was there to step in.
Making stew has been in Clary’s family for generations. He had started making soup as a teenager with his grandmother, who was steadfast in her recipe that she kept on a 3-by-5 index card. As he has grown older, Clary has confessed to tweaking her recipe just a bit to suit his own tastes.
Now he cooks for his community, making about 600-800 quarts at a time. “We make money for a lot of civic organizations. I cook for churches, individuals. We raise a lot of money,” Clary said.
He hopes his 12-year-old grandson will carry on the tradition.
“We have to keep the tradition alive. Twenty-five years from now, no one’s going to know how to cook Brunswick stew,” Clary said, his eyes beginning to tear up. “And that’s bad.”
By Arianna Coghill/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.