I’ve always wondered why someone in Haywood County, Tennessee didn’t package and distribute the stew they make in large black pots. As it turns out, someone did.
My wife Michelle and I attended this “stew” back in 2011 at
Holly Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County where my cousin,
Becky Booth, shared a little of the work that goes into a stew.
Both my grandmothers, Elizabeth Castellaw Williams (1915-1998) and Virginia Brantley Lovelace (1917-2007), were great cooks and, although their menus for family gatherings typically included the traditional southern cuisine you would expect, they both almost always included “stew.” It was just called stew. No other clarifying descriptor was needed because, at their tables, there was only one kind of stew. Since it looked exactly the same at both houses, I grew up assuming it was something common that would be found on the table at most large family gatherings, at least in the South. I later discovered that was not necessarily the case.
What both my grandmothers—and most of the cooks in Haywood County—were serving then (as well as now) was a Virginia-style Brunswick stew. However, their version was a little more like a thick porridge than some of the photos I’ve seen of other Brunswick stews.
Like barbecue, there are many different versions of “stew,” and there’s quite a competition among southerners about which is the best. In Georgia, they use pork and beef rather than chicken, and their stew is much spicier, while cooks in Kentucky call their version Burgoo. In some areas of the country, stew shows up on the menu with barbecue.
Located on Governor Harrison Parkway (Hwy 58), 0.75 miles west
of the intersection of Governor Harrison Parkway (Hwy 58)
and Grassy Pond Road. More
The stew found in Virginia, which supposedly originated in Brunswick County, seems to most closely resemble what I grew up with.
While the original Virginia Brunswick stews called for squirrel meat, most now seem to use chicken. The tomato-based stew also includes lots of vegetables but an especially large amount of fresh corn. The stew my grandparents cooked, which was stirred with a boat oar to keep it from burning on the bottom, took most of a day and was then put in mason jars and stored away until those family dinners.
There was a time when the rest of the country was able to enjoy the Haywood County version of Brunswick stew thanks to Franklin Sturdivant (1860-1932). His mother, Mary S. White Sturdivant (1832-1908), was actually born in Brunswick County, Virginia and was, according to Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition, a niece of William Thomas Mason who was “the caretaker of the original recipe” for Brunswick stew. She married Edward Claiborne Sturdivant (1823-1919) and they moved from Virginia to the Tabernacle community of Haywood County in 1849.
Edward and Mary had three sons: Robert Marcus Sturdivant (1854-1912), Edward Claiborne Sturdivant Jr. (1856-1942), and Franklin Sturdivant (1860-1932).
The version of Brunswick stew Mary and Edward prepared with her family’s recipe was so popular, in the 1870s they opened the Sturdivant Stew Factory on Wilson Avenue just north of Margin Street in Brownsville. In 1918, their enterprising son, Franklin, took a break from running his drug store to modernize the family stew-packing process opening a canning and packaging plant. Sturdivant’s Old Virginia-Style Brunswick Stew was ready for distribution around the nation.
Franklin Sturdivant also built this Craftsman bungalow at 410 Washington Avenue in Brownsville.
Photo courtesy Sharon Hayes / Sign on the former Stew Factory
Although the original stew plant is now empty, I was pleased to hear it still stands across the street from Overton Roofing in Brownsville.
Edward and Mary Sturdivant and many of their descendants, including Franklin and his brothers, are buried at the Tabernacle Cemetery in Haywood County. I’ve read that there are still Sturdivants in the area who make stew with the same recipe their ancestor brought from Virginia. I’m not sure if their stew is with or without squirrel.
for Kelly Foods in the 1960s.
The depression took a toll on the stew-packing business and the original stew recipe was sold to Kelly Foods in Jackson, Tennessee in the 1940s. That company declared bankruptcy and closed around 2003, so now you’ll have to make your own Brunswick Stew.
I’m curious. Did anyone out there ever try a Kelly Foods version of “Brunswick stew” and was it similar to what we eat in Haywood County? If so, answer below.
If you do have the skills to make your own, you’ll want to know the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville is inviting stew teams and individuals from across the region to participate in its third annual Old Family Stew Cook-off on Saturday, September 23, 2017. The winner will be named “West Tennessee StewMaster,” receive a trophy and earn bragging rights. More info is available here.