Down home cooking – what is it to you? Everyone has their own version. A meal traditionally served at a certain time or on a specific occasion. Usually a hearty comfort food that cures what ails you. It could be your family’s Christmas morning breakfast or just the annual Thanksgiving meal. To me, it’s something special, a meal that has been eaten by my ancestors for over a century. It’s called Hatchie Bottom Stew, and it’s my down home meal. The stew around the West Tennessee homelands originated with a number of things that come together only in the Fall season, when temperatures start to cool, and a hearty, warm stew is the ultimate comfort food. This is a stew inspired by my ancestors from Virginia, where the traditional Brunswick stew is a staple food. It may be served at squirrel-hunting camps, family reunions, church dinner-on-the-grounds, political rallies, or any other gathering.
Our farmer friends often freeze the basic ingredients and make a stew in the middle of winter when farming slows down. Fall is the ultimate food season to me because:
1) The late crop of sweet corn is at its peak.
2) The tomatoes are late in the season and are the sweetest and most flavorful.
3) Squirrel season has opened, and the little critters are plentiful.
It’s a simple food, taking very few ingredients, but lots of time, and usually some help with the stirring. Because this dish does take time, it’s recommended that it be prepared outside, as is traditional, in the biggest pot you can find. Perhaps something in the near-bath tub variety. Your normal kitchen utensils need not apply to this task – you’ll need a wooden tool that more closely resembles a boat paddle.
Now for the ingredients, you can make as big of a stew as you can fit in you pot.
The method can be somewhat of a marathon. This is where the help comes in.
Service of the stew should be done quickly while it is still hot, or cooled in small batches and frozen. In my mind, only four things are appropriate as accompaniments: white bread, saltine crackers, cheddar cheese, and hot sauce. Anything else is just too much.
The Anti-Recipe – Many great foods have great recipes. To make Hatchie Bottom Stew great, it is more important to observe what you don’t do, and what you don’t put in it. My Grandma Dorothy grew up at the center of the stew universe. Her highest compliment is “Well, I hear he makes a real clean stew.”
– No Chicken knuckles (Bone-end cartlidge — see Squirrel Heads, below)
– No Squirrel heads (Pick the meat out of the stock, then strain, rather than trying to pick stuff out of the stew pot as it floats by while cooking.)
– No Shotgun Pellets (Again, strain the stock and only put in the final pot what you want to eat!)
– No Livers or Gizzards (There is no more “dirty” stew than one that has livers and gizzards floating by. It’s even dirtier if you grind them up. [See Anti-Method below.] Yuck!!!!! Dirty rice is one thing, dirty stew is entirely unacceptable.)
– No Butterbeans (Many good Brusnwick Stew recipes include butterbeans aka Lima Beans. That’s fine, soup with butterbeans is often really good, it’s just not stew)
– No Green vegetables (That might make it healthy)
– No Strawberries (Some noted stew-making friends of ours always froze mass quantities of stew ingredients whenever they were in season. They also froze a big batch of strawberries. You can see that train wreck coming. Actually, the amount of strawberries in the mass quantity of stew made little difference, but the story was good!)
Anti-Method – Do not grind anything you put in stew. Many people put their stew through a meat grinder. You grind meat for Vienna Sausage and Potted Meat. NOT STEW!!!! Your pulled chicken meat should be chopped up chicken salad size. I guess some people grind their stew to avoid that stringy old rooster!