Brunswick Stew is a great Virginia tradition that goes back to about 1816. First cooked by James (Jimmy) Matthews as a squirrel stew, the recipe as we know it today was pretty much settled between 1816 and 1828 thanks to a fellow named Ned Stith. Both Matthews and Stith lived in Brunswick, VA.
Georgia likes to claim the origination of Brunswick Stew, but their claim only goes back to 1898. Brunswick Stew was cooked in Virginia in antebellum times and newspapers also begin to mention Brunswick Stew in Georgia around the 1870's. So, sorry, Georgia, Brunswick Stew is a Virginia tradition that spread through the South.
Brunswick Stew was originally a squirrel stew. But, it is more of a community food than a hard set recipe. The three basic ingredients are tomatoes, corn, and butter beans (a.k.a. baby Lima beans). From there, just about any kind of meat is permissible. There are 19th century accounts of Brunswick stew made with squirrel or chicken or a combination of both, and even beef. One account tells us of the stew made with squirrel, chicken, and pheasant in the same pot. They also used rabbit in the mix from time to time and one writer mentioned that it was "highly seasoned" which is probably a reference to the cayenne pepper that Virginians loved to use in recipes.
I asked my 84 year old Dad about it and he told me that he and his family have been eating it since he can remember. He said that the old timers used to use squirrel in it. The name "Brunswick Stew" isn't universal in Virginia either. It's been called squirrel stew and also barbecue stew in some areas of the state. My Dad told me that besides squirrel, chicken was often used. He also pointed out that, in lean times, the old timers would only use fat back for the meat. That's how I remember my Mother making it. It was a highlight of summer meals. Fresh corn, tomatoes, and butter beans straight from my Dad's garden in the pot with some fat back. What I'd give to have just one more bowl of that stew made by my Mother.
Sometime around the 1870's, some in the Albemarle, Virginia area added Worcestershire sauce and okra. But, none of that is needed for a truly authentic Brunswick Stew.
Here is an authentic 19th century Virginia Brunswick (barbecue) stew. It's absolutely delicious. My Japanese raised daughter in-law ate two bowls! My wife told me that we will be cooking it again. Here are the ingredients.
1 onion chopped
3 ounces of fat back, rinsed
1 TBS lard or bacon grease
2 pounds butter beans
3 to 4 ears of corn
1 28 ounce can of tomatoes
2 medium potatoes, diced
4 chicken thighs
Unsalted chicken broth or water
1/2 stick of butter
cayenne pepper flakes (a key for Virginia style stew)
Start off by sweating the onions and the fat back in the lard or bacon grease.
After about 15 - 20 minutes, add the tomatoes.
Let the pot come to a simmer and add the chicken along with a tablespoon each of black pepper, and salt, sugar, and one teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Add a little broth or water to cover the chicken, if needed.
Let the chicken simmer in the pot for about an hour or until it can be easily removed from the bone. If the liquid reduces too much to where the chicken isn't covered, add a little more broth or water.
Now, add the butter beans.
Remove the chicken thighs from the pot, remove the meat from the bones and shred or chop it then add it back to the pot. Discard the bones, cartilage and skin. I fed all of the skin and cartilage to my doggies. No cooked chicken bones for the dogs, please!
Let the pot simmer for about another 20 minutes and add the potatoes.
Once the beans and potatoes are tender, add the corn that has been cut from the cobs.
Let it cook for about another 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and stir in the butter that has been cut into cubes.
Once the butter has melted into the stew, check the seasoning, make any needed adjustments, and serve.
I like to add a little extra red pepper to mine. One 19th century writer called this stew a taste of "old Virginianism."
Thanks for looking!