In the town of Brunswick Georgia in the month of October a very special celebration of the folklife and folk heritage roots of Brunswick stew occurs at the Brunswick Stewbilee Festival and Cookoff.
The Brunswick Stewbilee began locally by the Brunswick/Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce in the late 19th century as a means of having fun with Brunswick Georgia's claim to the origin of this iconic Southern stew, to attract visitors interested in heritage tourism, and to establish a professionally conducted cooking competition with award trophies given to stew masters by a select team of judges and by ballot in "the people's choice award."
The Stew Wars
The Brunswick Stewbilee is well known for it's challenge in the 1980's to the state of Virginia to come to Georgia for a decisive head-to-head Brunswick stew cookoff between the best stewmasters Virginia could muster and those from Georgia to decide which state had rights to the claim that Brunswick stew originated there. This preciptated the Brunswick "Stew Wars", featured in Southern Living magazine. (The Virginia legislature went so far as to pass a resolution declaring Brunswick County Virginia as the "Official Home of Brunswick Stew" followed by placing state historical markers indicating so. This prompted the Georgia legislature to pass a similar resolution declaring Georgia as the "Place of Origin" of Brunswick stew. And as the smoke gathered from each battle it became harder and harder to separate the contemporary folklore and the prattle and fun-poking from the more deeply-rooted and substantial folk heritage roots of Brunswick stew in Georgia and Virginia.
The Brunswick Stew Folklife Documentaries
Documentary folklife video artist and producer, Stan Woodward, decided to see if the old adage, "where there's smoke there's fire" would hold true in the case of the Brunswick stew wars. In his first documentary on the subject - Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Treasure - Stan brought attention to the existance of a well-established culture of "stewmasters" and stew crews that exists in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia who maintain the cooking of ancestral recipes in huge black iron wash-pots at community events, holidays and special occasions. Stan discovered that the ritual cooking of brunswick stew - and many other kinds of folk heritage stews - was widespread among rural communities in the South. "These were ways that folks whose ancestors were raised on farms honored the memory of those who worked the soil and endured hard times and counted on the black iron washpot to provide harty sustenance from whatever meats and vegetables were available, Woodward reported.
"The field research and shooting of the Virginia Brunswick stew story carried me down to Georgia where I shot a great amount of footage documenting what proved to be unique folk heritage roots of the Georgia Brunswick stew tradition. I knew at the time that it would be important to shoot as much documentation of traditions and stories of origin as possible, thinking that one day I would be able to build on this archival video collection and produce the Georgia story of Brunswick stew. Clearly it's folk heritage roots ran deep into the vernacular culture of rural Georgia all the way from the Atlantic sea islands across South Georgia and up into the mountains along its western border with Tennesee and North Carolina."
When Stan arrived in Brunswick, Georgia he found a kindred spirit in Woody Woodside - director of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce. As Stan interviewed Woody about the Stew Wars with Virginia and shot footage of the cast iron memorial stewpots that adorned the Visitors Centers and claimed that the Brunswick sea islands held the secrets of the origins of the stew, his research revealed that there was substance to the imbedded Brunswick stew folklore of the Sea Islands that needed documentation. Folklorist, Dr. John Burrison of Georgia State University, who had worked with Stan on the Virginia Brunswick stew story, suggested approaching the Georgia Arts Council for a grant to tell the Georgia Brunswick stew story.
BRUNSWICK STEWBILEE: A Folklife and Folk Heritage Foodways Festival
"I think at the point when I approached Woody in 2002," Stan says, "with the idea that the Chamber (and ultimately the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association) sponsor a grant to the Georgia Arts Council to fund a folklife documentary that authenticated the folk heritage roots of Georgia Brunswick stew and connected them to the Brunswick Stewbilee, a process began that has impacted the Stewbilee. It has grown from simply another food cook-off festival to a genuine folk heritage foodways festival. With the completion of Brunswick Stew: Georgia Named Her; Georgia Claims Her" and it's broadcast statewide over Georgia Public Broadcasting (June 26, 2005), the Brunswick Stewbilee is now firmly in touch with the authentic and diverse folk heritage roots of the Georgia Brunswick stew tradition."
The Kiwanis Club of Brunswick and it's new team of sponsors for the Stewbilee is gearing up for an expanded "Rockin' Stewbilee" and is in great position to distinguish the expanding Stewbilee festival by identifying it as ... a folklife festival, where the folk heritage roots of Georgia Brunswick stew are celebrated, on display, and can be tasted and eaten!