By Hardy Jackson
In the fall a young man’s fancy
Turns to thoughts of barbecue
Books are good for you.
I always learn something when I read.
The other day I read Searching for the Dixie Barbecue: Journeys into the Southern Psyche by Wilber W. Caldwell.
And I learned something.
Caldwell made me realize why I never really cared for Brunswick stew.
Now I don’t necessarily dislike Brunswick stew, it’s just that most Brunswick stew I have eaten has left something to be desired. At least by me.
(Let me pause here to observe that among the many good points Caldwell makes, the most important is that if you or I or anyone else thinks that a particular stew or barbecue or whatever is better than another, then it is. There is no use trying to convince you or me or anyone else otherwise. Case closed.)
I have eaten a lot of stew, and what I ate was nothing like my Daddy’s.
I can see him now, standing over a large pot on the stove out at his Poutin’ House, stirring with one hand and with the other raising a glass filled with something he sipped reverently while what he stirred filled the room with a smell that can be experienced but not described.
Daddy is gone, but before he died, I figured that I, as his heir apparent, would one day be responsible for carrying on the stew tradition. So I asked him how he made it.
And he told me, “Ask your mother.”
And I did.
And she gave me the recipe.
Clipped out of a magazine.
“Easy Brunswick Stew.”
I was expecting a treasured family recipe handed down from generation to generation, first by word-of-mouth and then copied and recopied on note cards now yellow with age.
I should have known better. I should have known that despite all the ink spilled praising Southern cooks who cook “from scratch,” my Mama was one of the many Southern cooks who abandoned “scratch” for convenience.
Like she did with “easy Brunswick stew.”
Here is how she and Daddy made it.
Get yourself a 4-5 lb. Boston Butt. Put it on to boil and cook it 2 ½ hours. (Now if you already have one of those that is smoked and sold for high school fundraisers, or have some pork left over from the last time you cooked out, that’s OK.)
While it is cooking, if it is cooking, put into another pot the following:
4 cups of frozen cubed hash brown potatoes (why spend all that time cubing when you don’t have to?)
3 (14 ½ oz) cans of diced tomatoes with garlic and onion (all cans in the recipe are about this size)
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 can cream style corn
1 can sweet green peas, drained
1 bottle barbecue sauce
A little hot sauce, a little salt, a little pepper
When the meat is cooked and cool, shred it.
Put the shredded meat into the pot with the rest, boil and stir and (if you are Daddy) sip.
So what, you may ask, makes this generic Brunswick stew, clipped out of a magazine, any different for the Brunswick stew you eat in barbecue joints and which author Caldwell says reminds him of the stew served in school cafeterias around the South?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It’s the lemon.
While everything is simmering, Mama added her special touch. Deviating from the recipe, she sliced a lemon thin and put it in the pot. Sometimes two.
And so it came to pass that later, when hungry folks spooned through a steaming bowl of stew that tastes like it was made from a magazine recipe, all of a sudden, a shot of sour assaulted their taste buds and they knew that they were into something special.
It’s the “whang.”
That makes the difference.
Though I have eaten Brunswick stew that is said to be the best, I never found that bit of lemon, never got that whang.
And without the whang, Brunswick stew is just, well, Brunswick stew.
With the whang, even Brunswick stew can be something special.
Sorta like life.
Life is better with the whang.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..