by Ray Linville
The center of small town is not always a town hall, courthouse, or church. Sometimes it’s a pot of bubbling stew as it is each fall in Mount Gilead, a community of slightly more than 1,000 residents in Montgomery County. Although the community is small, just about everyone knows about the Brunswick stew served when Brown’s Hardware has its open house.
Incorporated in 1899, Mount Gilead boasts a downtown historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The heart of historic downtown is a hardware store that has been open continuously for more than 100 years, and the floor creaks like it is even older. Known now as Brown’s Hardware, the business presents itself as an “old timey general store and mercantile,” and it is.
Although the downtown is being revitalized by the town’s participation in the N.C. Small Town Main Street Program, Brown’s Hardware needs to be preserved without any new-fangled modern changes. The store is more than just a place to buy hardware. Chairs offer places for customers to sit and talk and even play checkers. During the annual open house, Brown’s is also where dozens gather around a warm pot of Brunswick stew and greet longtime friends and new acquaintances.
As the holiday season approaches near the end of November, the businesses of Mount Gilead extend their hours well past the normal closing time. The townspeople gather first to hear the mayor offer seasonal greetings before they stroll in and out of stores for sweet treats, small talk, and shopping. However, at Brown’s Hardware, they linger to savor a stew so sweet that only Peggy Evans could have made it. As they enter the store, they pass the areas where most business transactions occur and head straight to the back and down the stairs where she is stirring ingredients in a huge 25-gallon cast-iron pot and serving steaming cups of mouth-watering stew.
When I ask what is in her Brunswick stew, she begins by listing ingredients without mentioning any quantities: corn, butter beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, onions. For meats, she uses beef and chicken, and then she adds, “I promise there’s no squirrel in it.” Only later did I learn that she never uses a recipe. “I start with so much. If the pot is not full, I add some more. I don’t have a written-down recipe,” she says.
When someone learns that Peggy’s wonderful stew is made without using a recipe, the reaction is often surprise. However, Peggy is only continuing a family practice. “My momma and grandma didn’t cook with recipes,” she says. Neither does Peggy, although she does confess that she “uses a recipe for a cake, but nothing else.”
Her choices of ingredients are influenced by her upbringing in Virginia, one of at least two states that claim to be the birthplace of Brunswick stew, although counties in North Carolina and several more states have been named Brunswick since the early British colonial days. Peggy’s stew experience began when her mother “made a hundred or two gallons for the Methodist church in Danville,” she says. “I watched her as she told others what to put in the pot.”
At home when Peggy makes Brunswick stew for her family, she usually makes only four gallons – not the huge quantity that she makes for Brown’s Hardware. “I mostly put in what I got,” so the recipe varies a little bit each time, but the flavor is always superb.
On a chilly fall evening in Mount Gilead, the best stew is determined by not its exact ingredients but the specific location where it is served — at a hardware store that continues to draw friends and customers since it opened for business in 1907. A pot of flavorful stew always creates good memories.
Because Peggy Evans is quite talented in preparing stew, she doesn’t need to use a recipe. If you are making Brunswick stew for the first time, use one of several recipes easily found in cookbooks and on the Internet. A good stew can any include any combination of ingredients, particularly vegetables. Most of us have our own must-have items, such as lima beans or corn or tomatoes.
This recipe has only chicken as the meat, although the stew typically includes chicken and one more meat (traditionally rabbit or squirrel in some locations or pork in other places). This recipe blends several recipes (including one from my son Russ), includes my favorite vegetables and makes about three quarts.
2 pounds chopped chicken
6 cups water
1 ten-ounce package frozen lima beans
1 ten-ounce package frozen green beans
2 cups whole kernel corn
3 potatoes, cubed
3 onions, chopped
1 can (28-ounce) whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
½ teaspoon black pepper
1½ cup catsup (or 1 small can tomato paste)
1 teaspoon hot sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ cup barbecue sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. In large pot over high heat, combine chicken and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes (or until chicken is tender). Remove any skin and de-bone unless boneless chicken used.
2. Add other items and stir well. Simmer uncovered for 60 minutes.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.