Brunswick Stew: tour of Brunswick County, Virginia; May 7, 2023

I like to cook Brunswick stew once or twice a year. While I prepare it fairly freeform, utilizing whatever ingredients are available, I base my cooking on a recipe from my well-worn copy of the 1985 cookbook Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. I never met Bill Neal before he died of complications from AIDS in about 1990 but I have several friends here in Chapel Hill who were close to him. At the Chapel Hill restaurant Crook’s Corner, Neal was almost singularly responsible for creating a fancy gourmet restaurant version of Southern home cooking, the kind of comfort food some of us grew up with. In his recipe for Brunswick stew, Neal counsels:

Most folks will agree that Brunswick stew took its name from Brunswick County, Virginia, but that’s about all they’ll agree on concerning the southern favorite….All the oldest and most traditional sources agree that game – usually squirrel – simmered over an open fire with corn is the essence of Brunswick stew.

Actually, there are a few out there that claim that Brunswick stew got its name from Brunswick, Georgia, not Brunswick County, Virginia. I suppose that is another story.

My mother was from Lubbock TX and was a good cook. My father was from Norfolk VA and my siblings and I were raised in nearby Virginia Beach. My mother cooked Brunswick stew all the time; made not with squirrel but with chicken, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and lima beans. Squirrel would have been impossible. We lived in a tract suburban neighborhood. We did not own a gun. For his generation, my father was eccentric. I do not think he went hunting even once in his long life.

Brunswick stew made usually of the aforementioned chicken, corn, and lima beans is eaten all over the South. It is an obligatory side dish at North Carolina pork barbecue restaurants.

I needed to go check out the birthplace of this dish. Brunswick County, Virginia is about eighty-five miles northeast of where I live in Chapel Hill NC. I drove up there one Sunday morning in May so I could take a bike ride. The tiny town of Brodnax VA (population 268) sits just inside the county line, about five miles east of the somewhat larger town of South Hill VA. There was no one around so I assumed it was OK to park here and unload my bicycle next to a boarded up rail station.

Brunswick County has a countywide population of just 15,800; down from about 20,000 in 1950 and even down from the 16,400 in the year 1800! The county is currently 57% African-American. I did an up-and-back bike ride this certain Sunday; Brodnax VA to Lawrenceville VA.

I honestly did not know of the Tobacco Heritage Trail until the morning of the ride. I had intended to bicycle on country roads. The Trail was a great find and it runs along a former rail line. I pulled out the Bike Friday and headed down the fourteen miles towards Lawrenceville, first on some town streets of Brodnax, then onto the trail itself.

The trail is not paved. It works reasonably well as a cycling surface but there are occasional sandy spots.

I passed under US-58.

Three miles along the path there was trouble! The trail was blocked by a fallen tree.

Lifting the bicycle across that tree was not simple but I managed, and continued on. I passed an abandoned building; had it had been some kind of store?

On the outskirts of Lawrenceville VA I cycled on residential streets towards its downtown. Lawrenceville’s current population is 1,014, down from 1,700 in 1910 and 2,200 in 1950.

Lawrenceville is largest town in the county and its county seat. The Brunswick County Courthouse and what looks to be an early nineteenth century jail front the almost entirely empty downtown commercial strip.

I sat on the steps in front of the courthouse and ate the lunch I had brought with me, peanut butter and dried cherry sandwich on Dave’s whole wheat bread. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle. The scene was peaceful. On this Sunday there was no one around, save one guy who had been sitting in his beat-up old car across the street from me the whole time; I have no idea why.

Saint Paul’s College operated in Lawrenceville from its founding in 1888 until it closed in 2013. A historically Black institution, its closure was attributed to the usual issues, especially lack of funding. I bicycled over to the campus to look around. There were a couple of abandoned campus police vehicles around the campus, Everything looked like the students and teachers had just walked away and left things like they were.

Student Union

The campus of the former college is on the west side on town, and I continued cycling, back on the bike path.

I rode the same route fourteen miles back to my car parked in Brodnax VA. I loaded the bicycle in the back for the hour and a half ride home. There is a recently opened Starbucks at the I-85 interchange three miles west of Brodnax (but not in Brunswick County!) and I was able to get an oat milk latte, one pack sugar, for the drive home.

Is there somewhere to get Brunswick stew in Brunswick County? I researched this question only after driving home to Chapel Hill NC. The answer: hardly anywhere. There are not many restaurants in Brunswick County VA. Wikipedia says that locals in Brunswick County cook Brunswick stew at church functions and in private homes. Lawrenceville VA has only about three restaurants; a Hardee’s, a pizza place, and somewhere called The Clubhouse Grill. There is an abandoned McDonalds on US-58.

Looking online, the Clubhouse Grill seems to be a tiny simple place mostly for hamburgers to-go, but it did win some kind of contest for the best Brunswick stew in Virginia. It appears that it is sold only in styrofoam quart containers for $10.00, with I assume a plastic spoon. I need to go back and bicycle this trail again so I can eat lunch at the Clubhouse Grill.

6 responses to “Brunswick Stew: tour of Brunswick County, Virginia; May 7, 2023”

  1. Oh the irony of it all! I could probably read one a day. Thank You for saving small town America!

  2. Pick up a copy of “Good Cookin from the heart of Virginia”. With illustrations by Queena Dillard Stovall. Smokey Stovall her son was a neighbor of ours when we lived in Virginia Beach. Anyway this book is the bicentenial book for the City of Lynchburg. Page74 has the recipe for the best Brunswick stew I have had. Or at least it tastes like the stew I would eat as a kid at events in Chase City. Usually the volunteer fire department would cook in black kettle over an open fire. You could have a bowl of stew and a piece of white bread with a donation to the local fire department. The fire department would make this an all day affair. Sometimes imbibing in some kind of alcohol during the process. They would stir the mix with a boat paddle. One time a member was so intoxicated with the process he fell backwards into the pot. Got his rear end stuck in stew and could not get out of the pot without help from the other volunteers. That year patrons were not so eager to purchase the stew. I will send the recipe out to the Paco’s mailing list for all those who are interested. I have made this stew probably ten times. Tom Goode

    1. Amazing story about Chase City, where Tom I know both your parents had grown up, and which is very close and likely similar to Lawrenceville and Brunswick County.

      1. Chase City was a neat little town. They were prosperous in the tobacco industry and also lumber. But most of all some really great people came from that town and went on to do bigger and better things. Chase City is 50 miles from everywhere.

  3. I enjoyed Brunswick Stew for the first time in Darien, Ga just north of Brunswick County, GA. It was the perfect choice for a rainy chilly day.

  4. I was very familiar with that area in my college days; I probably drove that section of 58 10 times a year driving my 66 Volvo 122S back and forth to Clemson.

    At least 10 years ago, back when that McDonalds on 58 was still open, Anne and I were driving 58 and had time to stop when we saw signs for the Lawrenceville “Brunswick Stew Festival.”

    There was a rather fierce competition when we arrived, the contenders available for tasting for, as I recall, a $5 ticket. Styrofoam containers of competing stews ruled the day, and there were crusty, cast-iron-cooked variations on cornbread. All I remember is being in some sort of stew heaven — as I love the stuff. It appears to still be happening as the mid-October “Taste of Brunswick Festival.”

    I’m pretty sure the big employer is Lawrenceville Brick on 58 — which may still be in operation, bricks being too heavy to ship from China. Back in the day at least, their reps would hit all the architectural offices in Tidewater, update our sample boards and bring lunch — no stew. And we could stop by the Batcheldor and Collins showroom in Norfolk near 21st Street if we needed other samples or technical help.

    There’s also a huge new Virginia Dominion natural gas-fired power station on 58 outside Lawrenceville in Brunswick County — part of the company’s plan to replace it’s aging coal-fired power stations. This new plant is gargantuan and opened in 2016. Dominion has consistently over-forcast the state’s electrical demand, though and has actually mothballed several of these gas behemoths — but not after passing on their cost to it’s customers, Being a regulated monopoly has its benefits — and leaves Brunswick County lots to stew about.

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