Sundays and Parker’s Brunswick stew

Every Sunday during my childhood in the 1960s, my parents dropped their three kids at First Methodist Church and quickly drove home for an hour of solitude and one more cup of coffee before church. By the time they were a block away, we would have walked up the steps into Asbury Hall where Mr. Gunn, who seemed 100 to me at the time (he was probably the age I am today), opened the heavy Gothic door, shook our hands and said a very hearty “Good morning!”

Once inside, the three of us would go in different directions, and I’d find my way to my Sunday school classroom where I did my best to pay attention to a very polite but (more than likely) frustrated teacher who was trying to teach for the next 50 minutes (or maybe just maintain order). It was the exact same week after week and year after year.

Once the bell rang, Sunday school was over, and I would walk, run, dash, saunter, traipse and wander over to the sanctuary to meet my parents for the 11 o’clock service. Everyone had their regular spot, and our family sat in “the annex,” an addition to the side of the church that increased the seating capacity of the original building. The downside of the annex was that most people didn’t have a clear view of the minister or the choir. The architecture was one issue, but an even larger problem, at least for those folks sitting behind us, was my mother’s hat. I’m not sure why she wore a different one every Sunday, but she did, and over time the hats became bigger and bolder. Maybe the larger the hat, the thinner she looked? While I’m not certain that’s exactly what she was thinking, she would have appreciated the illusion. Others loved and hated those hats, and they were a constant topic of conversation.

While sitting in church, I would fidget and squirm, trying (but failing) to pay attention to our minister, Charlie Hubbard, who was well known for his progressive views on civil rights. The church was always crowded, and Mr. Hubbard’s sermons kept the congregation talking during the week which ensured they’d come back the next week to hear more. My parents were big fans, and even though they weren’t deeply religious, they loved Charlie and they loved First Methodist Church just as their parents and grandparents had before them.

I was restless and always impatiently waiting for my father’s watch to hit the noon hour so we could leave and have lunch. Religion may not have captured my youthful imagination but food was an important part of my soul, and if I wasn’t thinking about lunch during church, I was doodling, wiggling, squirming and otherwise unable to sit still.

To get my attention, my father would take the tiniest piece of skin on my thigh and pinch it to make me stop whatever I was doing that was bothering him — which was just about everything. It takes momentous self-control not to scream aloud in a quiet church when a harsh pinch is administered the way his were — which was the only self-control I ever had during the church hour. The good Lord works in strange and mysterious ways.

Once church was over it was time for lunch, and since my mother didn’t like to cook, we went to Parker’s Barbecue almost every Sunday. We occasionally dined at the restaurant but more often had take-out. Any Wilsonian already knows the menu by heart, but for those who might not, it was the same every week: fried chicken, barbecue, slaw, boiled potatoes, green beans, corn sticks and my personal favorite (and co-star of meal) — Brunswick stew.

Dad would drive to U.S. 301, where the plain, one-story, white clapboard building sat in the middle of a sea of asphalt, and park in the back. We walked through the screen doors that would slam so hard I jumped every time it happened. No matter how hot or cold it was outside, it was always hotter inside.

The take-out area was a corner of the restaurant kitchen, so I could see everything going on where the food was being prepared and cooked. Closest to us, huge amounts of white, flour-coated chicken was already in large baskets being dropped into hot oil and minutes later lifted out as delicious, golden-brown, crispy, fried chicken perfection. Former uglies, now Southern-fried Cinderellas were ready to go to the barbecue ball.

Corn meal batter was dropped into boiling oil using a machine that looked like a large, upside down oil can, and delicious corn sticks came out of the hot oil — another miraculous transformation.

Barbecue was chopped and seasoned with spiced vinegar, while bright green slaw was forced into cardboard containers so customers would get the most green for their green. Hot chunks of boiled potatoes and green beans were quickly making the same container-bound trip. Even at a young age, I knew the process well, and I watched men in white uniforms, splattered with grease stains, working hard. They all wore white paper hats with the Parker’s logo, also dotted with grease and sweat that beaded on their foreheads as they worked. I watched as they labored to get all the food cooked and packed, bagged and boxed.

One lone woman took the orders and received the cash at the register in an otherwise male-oriented arena. After a short wait, a large pasteboard box filled with food was brought to the counter, the lady called out “Hackney!” and we stepped forward to take our lunch home. A bag of piping hot corn sticks always sat on top of the other food containers, so I would grab one to eat during the ride home, sometimes as compensation for the pinched thigh but more frequently because it was delicious, and I couldn’t wait to get home to enjoy one.

The container of Brunswick stew was always the first thing emptied, no matter how much was ordered. While the grown-ups would have eaten it politely with a spoon or fork, every kid (and my grandfather, Tom, who taught us this trick) knew the proper way to eat Brunswick stew: use a corn stick like a spoon, dipping it into the thick stew with each delicious bite. There’s no way I’ll add up the number of Brunswick stew covered corn sticks I’ve eaten over my lifetime, but if my doctor is reading this article, I don’t eat corn sticks any more. Except when I drive home from Parker’s with a take-out order. Or when I eat Brunswick stew. What a vicious circle.

In those days, it never occurred to me that someone could make Brunswick stew at home because as far as I knew, Brunswick stew was exotic fare only available at Parker’s. My country friends laugh at me when I make this statement because their families enjoyed making a humongous pot of Brunswick stew in the fall, but that’s not something my citified family ever did. We always went to Parker’s for our Brunswick stew. Always. Never mind that Brunswick stew is traditionally a fall dish, I’ve found a great recipe, and you’re going to want this wonderful (and easy) Brunswick stew recipe to enjoy year round.

And if you’re wondering —I’m still a member at First United Methodist Church in Wilson, the sixth generation of my family to continue the tradition. I love the church just as my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents before me. The old church burned in the early 1980s and with it the annex where our family used to sit and my mother’s hats blocked people’s view, where my thigh was frequently pinched and where we listened to Charlie Hubbard preach. Today’s modern church was completed in the late 1980s, and there’s a miracle with the new architecture — the minister and choir can be easily seen from every seat in the sanctuary. Women no longer wear large hats that block the view of people behind them either. Honestly, not many women wore hats back then except my mother, but she never was like any of the other mothers in millinery or any other way. At 87, she still isn’t. Some things never change.

If I walk into the new sanctuary, close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still see that little boy squirming and counting the minutes until church ends and he can go to Parker’s for lunch. And when I open my eyes, that little boy is now someone’s grandfather. And one day, when my grandchildren are adults, they may be sitting in the same church, and they may close their eyes and think about when they were squirming and waiting to go to a special lunch with their parents and grandparents. And so it has always been — the circle of life through one family, one church, one restaurant and Brunswick stew. Amen.

1 5-pound (roughly) whole chicken (cut into pieces)

12 to 1 pound of cooked, pork BBQ — chopped (optional — but best if added)

1 pound frozen baby lima beans (or butter beans for Southern purists like me)

1 pound frozen corn

8-10 medium red potatoes-diced (large dice)

1 8-ounce can of tomato sauce

64 ounces of chicken stock

2 4-ounce cans tomato paste

12 stick butter

14 to 12 cup apple cider vinegar

18 to 14 cup Texas Pete

14 cup catsup

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon of pepper

Rinse the chicken and place it in a large stock pot. Add chicken stock and then add enough water so that liquid is 3 to 5 inches over the chicken.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and let chicken cook for 1 hour. While chicken is cooking, wash, peel and cut up the potatoes, large dice. Cover them with water until ready to cook.

Remove cooked chicken from pot, set aside to cool. Skim foam off top of stock as needed.

Separately rinse frozen baby lima beans and corn in a colander and then add lima beans to hot chicken stock. Cook for 30 minutes.

Next add corn and cook for 15 minutes. Then add the potatoes to the pot with the lima beans and corn.

Make sure the vegetables are covered by about 2 inches of liquid. Add shredded meat from legs and wings to vegetables while cooking.

Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until vegetables and potatoes are tender, another 10 to 15 minutes.

While the vegetables cook, pull the chicken meat from the bones. Discard bones and skin and shred chicken into small pieces.

Once vegetables are done, remove any excess liquid, leaving just enough to reach top of vegetables. Reserve this stock.

Add tomato sauce, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, black pepper, salt, butter, Texas Pete, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and stir well.

Add chicken and barbecue to the stew. Add catsup, stirring well. Return to stove and simmer on medium, stirring often. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stock from vegetables may be added to obtain desired consistency.

Brunswick stew is always tomato-based and thick. And if you don’t want to make it homemade, get in your car and drive over to Parker’s in Wilson. It’s still exactly the same as it was when I was a boy picking up take out with my father.

Thankfully, some things never change.

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