by David Cecelski
Last 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 andHeritageCenter. 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 heart beat.
The 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.
It’s 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.
Here’s 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.
Mrs. 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.
I 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.
If 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.