By Katie Bashista
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Carroll Tucker stuck the long, wooden stirring paddle into the 85-gallon pot of stew. He let it go, and it didn’t move.
“Do you know what it means if the paddle can stand up by itself?” said Tucker, longtime friend of this year’s Brunswick stewmaster and member of the “stew crew.”
Senators, delegates and hungry residents lined up outside a tent on the Capitol grounds Wednesday to get a taste of this year’s stew. Legislators declared the fourth Wednesday of January Brunswick Stew Day nearly 20 years ago, and it’s the county’s most celebrated tradition.
“It’s been a cherished endeavor for many years,” said Tracy Clary, this year’s stewmaster. “The first Brunswick Stew was cooked in 1820 in Brunswick County right on the banks of the Nottoway River.”
Clary has lived his entire life in the county, which borders North Carolina, and has participated in the Taste of Brunswick Festival for years. Of the seven years he’s competed in the cook-off, he’s placed in the top four six times, winning for the first time in October.
The winning dish, which Clary served again Wednesday, is a chicken-based stew with pork, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, butter beans, corn and a seasoning consisting of just four ingredients – salt, sugar, black pepper and ground red pepper.
Clary and his crew cooked the mixture from midnight until the last spoonful of the 340 to 350 quarts of stew was served just before noon.
“Once you start the pot to get cooking, you’ve got to constantly stir it so it doesn’t burn,” said Tucker, a member of the crew. “We’re constantly adding ingredients, sitting around talking, just having good fellowship and cooking the stew.”
The long hours tending the pot were rewarded when around 10:30 a.m. senators, representatives and other lawmakers lined up to grab a bowl. By 11 a.m., the stew was running low.
“The governor’s not going to have anything to stir if he doesn’t come down here soon,” said a member of the stew crew.
Shortly after, Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Roslyn Tyler, who is from Brunswick, made their way to the tent just in time to get their fix. They gathered around the steel pot, which was almost as tall as the stewmaster himself, to take pictures with Clary and the stew crew. Then they took turns stirring the pot.
“It’s like paddling my boat,” Northam called out as he grasped the paddle and stirred the remaining stew.
Brunswick County administrator Charlette Woolridge said she hasn’t missed a Stew Day in the 11 years she’s held the position. She said Stew Day is an important event in the county’s history because it’s an opportunity for locals to showcase Brunswick County, interact with elected officials and Virginia residents and share their beloved stew.
“We’re just happy and proud to host this event annually,” she said. “We get great enjoyment and fulfillment out of this, and we look forward to doing this for years to come.”