Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

Stewed in Comfort


It’s that time of year. Our kids wait by the windows, waiting for snow to fall and cover the ground in a fresh blanket of white. Grown-ups rush outside, into the cold snap winds, running into the warmth of our cars, homes or stores. Gloves, scarves, mittens and boots scatter the floor and become our welcome mat inside the front door.
As we drop the wintertime wardrobe while walking through the front door, nothing says “you are home” in the winter like the rich smell of an amazing stew or chowder bubbling in the crock pot. It wraps around you like a loving hug and warms your soul before the first bowl has even 
been served.
With red cheeks and noses, we gladly dip our buttered rolls into the rich gravy and eat our carrots and potatoes without complaint. But where did this tradition of stew in the winter begin? Why is it that when the weather changes we begin to trade in our thoughts of strawberries and salads for that thick, bubbling gravy? It has been a tradition for centuries in many cultures worldwide.
Our ancestors knew that every hunter had to use everything from the hunt they brought home. However, not every cut of meat is created equally and some are tough and sinewy. By soaking them for long periods of time in salt, herbs, various spices and boiling water, the tough meat broke down while becoming infused with the flavors of the other ingredients. Stews, soups, broths, and chowders became popular ways to feed large families or crowds and they remain popular to this day.
With so many variations, it is difficult to tell the difference between soup, stew or chowder. Even the experts debate between these edible liquids, but there are some general rules for determining the difference. They are all created over time by allowing various ingredients to infuse flavors through heat over hours, but the end result determines the official title.
A soup is more liquid based, whether cream or broth, and is characteristically filled with finely chopped ingredients. Stews begin with chunky ingredients that are cooked in the chef’s choice of liquids (water, broth, beer, wine, etc.). Chowders are very much like stews in that they are chunky, but the difference is that chowders were historically known to begin with fish ingredients.
Virginia has a rich history of stews. If you follow your nose through many Virginia cool weather, outdoor festivals you can generally find a large cast iron cauldron being stirred with a large paddle by a very happy volunteer making Brunswick stew. Although there is some debate over the origin, Virginia has been credited as being the birthplace of Brunswick stew. In 1828 a camp cook, Jimmy Matthews of Brunswick County, VA, simmered squirrels in butter, onions and stale bread. He added spice and seasoning, creating the dish we now call Brunswick stew.
As time went on the recipe allowed for chicken or rabbit and in Georgia the recipe allows for pork. The stew is cooked for hours until the paddle stands up in the center of the pot and generally will feed a large crowd. No matter how it is made, each year the scent of Brunswick stew wafting through the open air marks the beginning of cooler weather for many Virginia towns and the tradition continues through the coldest parts of winter.
Historically, the Civil War stews were quick and easy meals that were initially filled with vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. Both the North and the South depended on stews to feed their soldiers. Those who were responsible for attaining ingredients and then making enormous amounts of food focused on ingredients that were seasonally available that could easily feed an army while also being cost effective. Flavor was the lowest concern of the inexperienced chefs and ingredients ran thin as the costly war dragged on, but good or bad, soups and stews became the home base for many soldiers.
Another colder weather favorite is creamy chowder. The most popular chowders in the United States are clam and corn, and the variations are regional throughout our country. We feel the most nostalgic when our chowder is made with our own hometown spin.
Historically, chowders were considered to be a “poor man’s food,” and began in the 16th century in fishing villages along the coast of France. The term chowder comes from the French word “chaudiere,” the pot in which the soup was originally cooked. Ships would return from the sea where a large chaudiere (or cauldron) would be waiting for a portion of each man’s catch. They would then serve the community as they celebrated the return of the men.
The first chowders were made by layering the ingredients, creating a substantially thick meal. As the tradition of the chowder grew, the ingredients took on regional flavors and preferences. Many began to add pork and beer in the layers well into the 18th century, but as the traditional thrifty meal, anything that was brought home was considered eatable in chowder. Whatever could walk, crawl, swim or climb could become the base ingredient for any chowder.
Thank goodness in today’s world we can pick up better ingredients at our local grocery store, and ingredients abound! We can also find recipes for a great chowder at the click of a button or in our favorite cook book. It can begin with fish, clams, corn or oysters, and have a thick and creamy base or a thin, tomato base. No matter how you love your soups, stews and chowders, nothing says “home” like your very own spin on any popular classic.
So, as the cold weather keeps us running home to get warm, keep these yummy favorites within reach!