With the passage of time, these savory traditions are fading into folklore, but an exhibit at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center is working to honor this chapter of cooking history. “Southern Stews,” which will be on display through March, includes antique utensils, photos of stewmasters at work, hunting and farming items, recipes and a documentary video. There’s even a corkboard for visitors to post their own time-honored stew recipes.
This time of year, people tend to think of comfort foods and stews, so the Mountain Heritage Center’s staff decided to focus on these perhaps overlooked traditions as well as the social dynamics and processes involved with creating Southern stews.
“It makes me hungry,” joked Suzanne Hill McDowell, curator at the Mountain Heritage Center.
The idea of the exhibit, McDowell explained, is to encourage visitors to reflect on cooking traditions and how cooking shapes our lives — especially as old-fashioned Southern traditions give way to crock pots and the prevalence of multicultural dishes brought into America’s melting pot by immigrants.
“I never had couscous as a child,” McDowell said.
These days the American palate is making room for Chinese and Mexican meals as well as Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern dishes.
Still, in the words of Mary Hufford of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, “American folklife stoutly resists the effects of a melting pot. If it simmers at all, it is in many pots of gumbo, chili, goulash and booya. And the American people are the chefs, concocting culture from the resources and the ideas in the American folklife repertory.”
The origins of Southern stews date back to the 18th century when Colonial cooks heated meats and vegetables over an open fire or boiled foods in a kitchen pot or kettle. More than a symbol of the slower pace of the South, these stews were at the very core of community life. Millers would grind enough cornmeal to earn a share of the community meal, and if he sold enough cornmeal, a miller could sell off shares like raffle tickets to a barbecue supper. In North Carolina and Virginia, opening day for the tobacco auctions often meant a hearty plate of Brunswick stew. For the poor, these stews were a method of cooking out of necessity — better to put it all in one pot to boil and stew meats and vegetables. For the wealthy, it meant savory, tender meals. Evidence of recipes mixing among black and white families and between social classes shows that Southern taste for stews had no preference for color or class. These one-pot wonders stirred the imaginations of generations.
Large public stew enterprises might include family reunions, church or civic groups, or whole communities engaged in a fundraiser. The process could take eight to 24 hours of cooking from firing the pot and peeling potatoes to carving up animal parts, stirring in special ingredients and simmering a vat at just the right temperature. Over the hours, cooks would take turns stirring five-foot-long paddles so the flavor and temperature is evenly distributed.
From Brunswick stew and Carolina Hash to Kentucky Burgoo and Lowcountry Boil, the stews varied depending on the available meats and vegetables of the region. Some might select seafood and corn for the ingredients while others might offer up lamb or pork. In some cases, the stew is served along with barbecue. In other cases, it might be poured over a bed of rice.
According to Charlotte Observer food writer Kathleen Purvis, South Carolina hash can be separated into two camps — the Lowcountry version (around Charleston and coastal areas), which is made with organ meats such as pork liver and served on rice, and the Upcountry version (upstate South Carolina) made with beef and/or pork and served with grits.
Still other recipes call for squirrel, veal, ox tail or other animals like possum that cooks jokingly say got too close to the pot and fell in.
Each locale hails its own version of a stew. Perhaps the best known among Southerners is Brunswick stew, which has generated a fierce rivalry over its origin in Virginia or Georgia. In annual public cook-offs, stewmasters vie for the right to claim which state serves up the best Brunswick variety in this simmering “stew war.” Even the state historical marker in Brunswick County, Va., declares, “Recipes for Brunswick stew have changed over time as chicken has replaced squirrel and vegetables have been added, but the stew remains thick and rich. Other states have made similar claims, but Virginia’s is first.”
The “Southern Stews” exhibit will include three upcoming programs to whet the appetite and share more rich food history.
On Jan. 15 in the Mountain Heritage Center Auditorium, Leni Sorenson, an African-American research historian at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, will give a PowerPoint presentation on the history of African-American cooks at Monticello. “Half French, Half Virginian: Foodways at Jefferson’s Monticello” will run from 12:20 to 2:20 p.m. The lecture features a fascinating story of how enslaved cooks learned the craft of fine dining from French chefs and brought elite cuisine to the dinner table of one of America’s first presidents.
On Feb. 24, the Mountain Heritage Center welcomes Joe Parker Rhinehart, who will discuss the finer points of Kentucky Burgoo stews. That program runs from 3-4 p.m. Then on March 16, Suzanne Simmons of Gastonia will discuss “Stewing Over Southern Seasonings” from 3-4 p.m. These two talks will be in the Heritage Center’s lobby.
Learn about Monticello’s cuisine
The enslaved cooks who prepared food at Monticello, the Virginia home of President Thomas Jefferson, will be the focus of a presentation at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center on Tuesday, Jan. 15.
The 12:20 p.m. presentation, “Half-French, Half-Virginian: Foodways at Jefferson’s Monticello” will be given by Leni A. Sorensen, African-American research historian at Monticello.
Sorensen’s talk will address the skills and lives of the Monticello cooks who for 54 years prepared foods that have become a hallmark of elite dining. Several of the African-American cooks learned their craft from French chefs, and then returned to Piedmont Virginia to continue the tradition of fine cuisine in Jefferson’s kitchen.
For more information about the Jan. 15 presentation or the “Southern Stews” exhibit, contact the Mountain Heritage Center at 828.227.7129 or online at www.wcu.edu/mhc.