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A Black Iron Haven

The Perfect Stew for Our Crew

Posted by Leila Wells

One of the advantages of growing up in a large, close-knit family is the access it provides to a variety of activities. The creativity that drives siblings (of any age) in these situations can be inspiring! I recall distinctly the nearly-annual festivity of cooking Brunswick stew in a 30 gallon cast iron pot with my father’s clan. When I say clan, I refer to my grandparents, my uncles and their families, my grandparents’ siblings, and my immediate family. Friends would also drop in over the years for this special cookout. The family would spend days in preparation for this event purchasing the ingredients and preparing them. Whole chickens, hens, pork loins, ground beef, tomatoes, corn, onions, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcester sauce, and other top-secret ingredients would be stockpiled in the kitchen and then guarded carefully until the moment they were prepared for entry in the tremendous pot.

There were particular rules that governed the entire process related to creating this stew. No one under the age of 35 was allowed to stir the pot, although the simmering process would continue for hours and hours. Only a few (rare) exceptions were ever made to this rule to my knowledge. The rationale behind the age limitation was never fully explained, but the best I could conjecture was that 35 marked a level of maturity in which an individual could be found willing to remain still long enough to contemplate the intermingling of flavors occurring in the pot over long periods of time without interruption.

Only the "elder" of the patriarchs of the family hold the knowledge of the top-secret recipe. I’m confident that my grandmother also knew it, as does my mother, but the family maintains the pretense that only the men know it. My dad has always told us that we could only inherit the recipe if we proved ourselves worthy of keeping its secrets. What might be entailed in proving this worthiness is still a mystery. Perhaps now that I am nearing the age during which I might be permitted to stir the pot, my father will share the criteria for inheriting the recipe even if I cannot yet inherit it.

Once an individual met the selection criteria to be allowed to stir the pot, then even stricter rules were applied to that person’s performance at the pot itself. The concoction had to be stirred continuously and only with designated wooden boat paddles. I also observed that the stirring had to be deep and consistent. The sides had to be regularly scraped in the rounds of the pot. All of these measures ensured an even cooking and no burnt stew. Cooking 30 gallons of stew required devotion, attentiveness, willingness to endure the heat (from the stew and from the summer air), and patience; these qualities, once demonstrated, permitted the stew stirrer to enter into the developing camaraderie of the cooking site.

The men of the family would start well before dawn and prepare the cookware and the cooking site. The fire had to be started and monitored. Once the stew was added to the pot, someone had to be on duty at all times to stir and to keep curious insects away. Often, as the stew was cooking, others would bring in an assortment of meats for barbecuing or smoking. One year, my uncle cooked turkeys on stakes by placing them in charcoal pits and covering them with pails. The meat "sides" (as the stew was the entrée) prompted competition among the family. Over the years, we voted on best barbecue sauce, best dessert, best smoked meat, and so on. Rivals sparred good-naturedly and brainstormed the competition that would take place at the next stew cooking.

By mid-afternoon, the stew had been cooking for at least six hours. The scent alone made passers-by hungry for a sample, if not an entire bowl. It was the time of day when the children were ready to pull off their shoes and commence gnawing if they didn’t get a bowl to themselves. The sliced bread, the sweet tea, the side dishes and desserts all appeared on the tables set up outdoors for picnicking. Utensils, bowls, plates and napkins also found their way to the tables and no sooner had they been placed than a line had formed at the cast iron pot. Huge ladles guided by the chefs themselves served up the delightful feast. Once bowls had been filled, plates were soon piled high with barbecue, potato salad, slaw or whatever sides were available. It didn’t take long for these very same plates and bowls to be emptied and for lines to form once again at the stew pot. I wish I could say I remembered the conversations I had over these delicious bowls of stew, but all I remember is wanting more stew.

When no more space was left inside our bellies, we began the clean-up process. Boxes and boxes of storage bags and storage containers were brought out and stew was ladled into them. As a child, I never had to worry about where this stew went since my family always took home enough to enjoy for the remainder of the year. We would store it in the freezer and reheat it. With every bag, I relived memories of the cookout and family togetherness once again.

As an adult living several states away, I traveled from some distance to come back to this event; I always considered myself fortunate if I found that I could transport even a quart bag back home with me. Now that I’m living much closer again, I’ve found that circumstances have kept the family from holding the event as often. I think fondly of the last cookout a couple of years ago and find myself more nostalgic than usual. Since that last event where over 100 people attended (friends and family), we’ve lost several dear ones and now the event won’t seem quite the same. Still, the tradition remains—a family united over the 30 gallon cast iron pot and the incredible mélange it contained.

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