- Published: 27 June 2019 27 June 2019
1987 was a banner year for the residents of Brunswick Country, Virginia. After 160 years of dispute, Brunswick, Georgia at last conceded that the Virginia county was the mostly likely place of origin of that humble yet ubiquitous Southern dish known as "Brunswick Stew."
A tad ungracious in victory, the Virginia General Assembly promptly issued a proclamation and hosted a cook off at the state capital. Virginia residents claimed that the stew had been invented by an African-American camp cook named Jimmy Matthews in 1825, and the primary ingredient was squirrel. But Brunswick stew soon became a standard fare at hunting camps, church picnics, community celebrations and firehouse barbecues. "Stewmaster" became a hallowed honorific, a title that took years to earn and was rather more rigorous than training to be a sommelier. The stewmaster that served up the best Brunswick Stew on that day was volunteer fireman John Clary with his "Proclamation Stew Crew." (It did not include squirrel). They still travel serving Brunswick Stew at community gatherings all around Virginia.
The Proclamation Crew's Brunswick Stew -- and the attendant history of the dish --is one of the recipes included in Molly O'Neill's cookbook One Big Table, one of her ladyship, the editor's most-loved and most-used cookbooks in her kitchen. So loved and used, in fact, that the pages containing her favorite recipes have long since come loose and are now held in place by paper clips, the book itself held together with twine when not in use. Several years ago, her ladyship purchased a back up copy, just in case the originals fell to pieces beyond repair.
Molly O'Neill passed away this week, a loss her ladyship feels acutely. A food journalist and chronicler of New York City's neighborhoods and burroughs, she can hardly be called a Southern cook. But she had this in common with a Southerner's approach to food and table: it may be the food on the plate we eat, but it is the hands that serve it that are really important. Cooking is about people.
That was the inspiration behind her..."quest" does not seem too small a word...to document the great home cooks of America in an era when fast-food and franchise restaurants suggested that Americans no longer bothered to cook.
One Big Table was O'Neill's ringing, definitive answer to that spurious assessment. And while it is indeed a book that travels all over the country, the South is well-represented in both historic and modern ways. Kahn Pearson's Indonesian Tuna Salad from Key West, Elizabeth Wilson's "Three-Generation Olive Salad" from New Orleans, Bubbba Frey's Famous Rooster Stew, from Frey Louisiana, Thomas Jefferson's Vanilla Ice Cream, Jill Sauceman's Appe Stack Cake from Johnsonville, Tennessee. Every recipe has its story -- some traditional, like the history of Brunswick Stew, and some personal, like Louise Etoch of Fayetteville, Arkansas, learning to cook Lebanese food for her new husband under the watchful eye of her mother in law.
Molly O'Neil was not "a cookbook writer" -- she was a chronicler of America's, well, soul.