Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Menu: Brunswick Squirrel Stew

I’m in Brunswick County, VA, sitting on a blue tarp on the side of a rocky hill 50 feet from Lake Rawlings. Rawlings is an old rock quarry-now-scuba destination for legions of wannabe divers from Rocky Mount to Rockville. Rick is here to check out his new, lightweight gear in preparation for our trip to Indonesia later this year.

I can’t be bothered. So instead I’m reading the Visitor and Newcomer Guide to Brunswick County, and it turns out I am smack in the middle of Brunswick Stew Country. This excites me no end. Stewww. That homiest of homey meals. The meal that stirs memories of seven Bauers packed around the kitchen table on cold winter days, eyeing the dwindling stew pot and barely bothering to chew – the better to be first on seconds.

That’s how good was my mom’s beef stew, with big chunks of potatoes and carrots, melting onion, the occasional bay leaf, and, the best part, kernels of corn and lima beans in the bit of gravy at the bottom. Brunswick stew, as I now know, is squirrel-based, with a pound of butter, some onions, a bit of stale bread, and heavy seasonings of black and red pepper. Or at least that’s how Uncle Jimmy Matthews, the creator, cooked it back in 1828, along with a shot of brandy or Madiera.

Over the years, the recipe evolved to become a lot more like my mom’s stew, and a lot less like Uncle Jimmy’s. The Story of Brunswick Stew (page 4) attributes this to “squirrels being harder to come by,” and I think: have you stepped outside in the last decade? In my little piece of Virginia, squirrels are the new Japanese beetle. They are everywhere.

Bobbing and weaving on the driveway. Pawing through the basil. And kvetching. Oy. Like they own the joint. Little do they know there’s a stew out there with their name on it.

In fact, back here in the Lake Rawlings wilderness, I’m noticing that the woods and picnic pavilions are surprisingly squirrel-free. And I see here in the Visitor’s Guide that the big Brunswick Stew Cook-Off is coming up in just a few weeks.

Coincidence? I think not.

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