by David Cecelski
week, on her 81st birthday, Mrs. Wanda Willis made a big pot of her
famous stew beef and rutabagas with cornmeal dumplings. She lives on HarkersIsland
and she made it for a lunch gathering at the island’s CoreSoundWaterfowlMuseum and HeritageCenter.
She’s part of a hardworking crew of the museum’s volunteers who can whip up a
few hundred plates of scallop fritters, stewed shrimp, or baked flounder in a
museum’s volunteers cook often—for festivals, fundraising suppers, holiday open
houses, and other occasions. I’m a fan of everything they make, but I have a
special weakness for Mrs. Willis’s stew beef and rutabagas. It’s just a perfect,
warm-your-innards kind of meal on a cold, wet, windy day like we had when I was
on the island last week.
also classic HarkersIsland fare. You don’t
even find stew beef and rutabagas very often a few miles down the road. Mrs.
Willis, who grew up in Marshallberg, just the other side of the Straits, told
me that she didn’t know anything about stewed beef and rutabagas until she
married a Harkers Island fellow and moved to the island.
a recipe for stew beef and rutabagas that I found in the Harkers Island United
Methodist Women’s wonderful cookbook, Island
Born and Bred.
3-4 lbs. stew beef, cut in 2-inch squares
2 Tbsp. Crisco
1 small onion, cut in chunks
1 medium rutabaga, sliced
Corn meal dumplings
Melt Crisco in pot; add beef. Cook until brown on all sides. Add enough
water to cover beef. Add onion; salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat
until meat begins to get tender. Slice rutabaga and place around sides of pot.
Add corn meal dumplings along with rutabaga. Bring to boil and cook down to a brown
and thick “popping” gravy. Add additional water during cooking, if needed.
Willis taught me how to make the dish and this is pretty much how she fixes her
stew beef and rutabagas, too. Like her, when I make it at home, I use vegetable
oil instead of Crisco. And also like her, I go heavy on the rutabagas, using 3
or 4, and light on the beef. To me the sweetness of the rutabagas, flavored by
the rich gravy, is the dish’s glory.
don’t know any local cafes that serve stew beef and rutabagas, but you can
often find Mrs. Willis’s at the big potluck dinners that are part of the museum’s
“Community Nights.” Those special evenings have a nice homecoming feeling to
them—they feature lots of storytelling, photograph sharing, and socializing,
and all are welcome, natives and newcomers alike.
you go, bring a covered dish if you can, but if you can’t, just drop a few
dollars in the donation basket. To check the schedule for the museum’s community
nights, to get directions, or to buy a copy of Island Born and Bred, go to www.coresound.com.