Food & Drink

Brunswick stew: The flavor of Charlotte’s political history

You know all about the Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church barbecue, right?

You know about the history – it’s been held every year since 1929. You know about the politics – candidates from around the state and even the nation show up to press flesh and causes on the fourth Thursday of October.

You certainly know about the barbecue, 14,000 pounds of pork shoulder, cooked over wood and dished out by a well-coordinated army of church volunteers.

But do you know about the Brunswick stew? Because that’s a different beast altogether.

Mallard Creek’s Brunswick stew breaks with tradition in so many way: Instead of potatoes, it has rice. Instead of shredded chicken and beef, it has ground-up chicken, beef and pork. Instead of lima beans, it has only corn and tomatoes.

And while Brunswick stew is usually considered a man’s project that started in the 19th century at hunting camps in either Georgia or Virginia (we’ll let them fight about that), Mallard Creek’s Brunswick stew was created by a woman:

Beck McLaughlin, legendary cook and farm wife. She was 93 when she died in 2004, but her creation lives on as one of North Carolina’s most distinctive dishes.

When the 85th annual barbecue cranks up Thursday and the cars stretch for a mile in both directions, church members like Tommie Oehler, 75, whose grandfather cooked at the first barbecue, know the truth:

“As many people come for the stew as for barbecue,” he says. “We sell it faster then they can cook it.”

Barbecue for life

At Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church, assignments at the massive barbecue come with membership.

“Once you get a job, you got to die to get rid of it,” says Tommie Oehler, one of three Oehler brothers and a passel of Oehler cousins at the church.

Three years ago, Rusty Wallace, 35 (no, not the race car driver), took over running the stew crew from his dad, Richard Wallace, 67. A firefighter who works for departments in Huntersville and Concord, he thinks hard work is a habit around Mallard Creek, which was a farming community before subdivisions overran the fields.

“We’re kind of a working group around here,” he says.

The stew started with the barbecue, as a fundraiser at the beginning of the Depression.

Two miles from the church, there was a one-room schoolhouse. In 1929, the county was opening a bigger school and closing the old Mallard Creek school. County officials suggested the church buy the building and 2 acres for $300 – money nobody had that tough winter.

To get it, the church held a barbecue, cooking two hogs, a goat and a pot of Brunswick stew.

“Ain’t no telling what was in the stew,” Oehler jokes. Brunswick stew traditionally had chicken and small game, especially squirrel.

The barbecue only raised $150. So the church did it again the next year. And the next, right on up to today.

The barbecue now attracts as many as 20,000 people a year to the field around the old school building, now called Community House and mostly used for youth and Scout events. The money raised mostly goes for building improvements, mission work and disaster-relief projects.

There are other church barbecues in the area, but the timing, just before elections, gives Mallard Creek its political spin. Dan Quayle and John Edwards both came to Mallard Creek. Gov. Pat McCrory went for every one of his campaigns except 2012.

Richard Wallace once saw a list of the 10 best things to do in North Carolina. Mallard Creek was No. 3.

“Here we are, this little church. That makes us feel good.”

Appetite for work

Richard Wallace inherited his tie to the stew: His aunt was Rebecca “Beck” McLaughlin.

A native of Mallard Creek, Beck was the daughter of a farmer and wife of another, W.J. “Smiley” McLaughlin. Their son, Dale, still runs the Mecklenburg County Market, started by his mother, on Harding Place.

There’s always work on a farm, so Richard spent a lot of his childhood with “Aunt Beck” and Smiley. “They taught me to work,” he says. “She was brought up to work, you know what I’m saying?”

At the county market, Beck was known for sausage, hams and cakes. She’d take orders for up to 100 cakes a week and bake them seven layers at a time in a wood-burning stove.

“I never remember going in her kitchen and she didn’t have something cooking,” Wallace says.

The barbecue was big when Richard was a kid. At school, they didn’t count Mallard Creek kids absent on barbecue day: “They knew where you were.”

In the early years, the stew stayed a man’s job. It was cooked outside over open fires in big cast-iron pots, and kids got the job of picking out leaves that drifted in. But men got the job of stirring.

With a thick base, Brunswick stew has to be stirred steadily or it will stick and scorch. Even with a 6-foot poplar-wood paddle, 15 gallons of stew isn’t easy to move.

“You had to have some back on you to stir it,” Rusty Wallace says. “It was an all-day job.”

Sometime in the 1940s, Beck McLaughlin took on overseeing the stew. She started to tweak the formula, coming up with a mixture of rice, chicken, beef and pork.

“More than likely, she made it up,” Dale McLaughlin says. “She didn’t go by recipes on hardly anything.”

He thinks she switched from potatoes to rice because potatoes got too mushy. Richard remembers that she stopped using lima beans because she thought they tasted too strong.

Beck ran the stew for about 40 years, becoming so known for it that her recipe was included in a cookbook, “Food We Remember II,” by the Mecklenburg Home Extension Homemaker Clubs, in 1976.

In the 1970s, Richard and his wife, Linda, finally took over for one reason: “Miss Beck agreed we could.”

Hefting a paddle

Over the years, they built a cookhouse, designed by Craven Oehler, with a brick stand that holds gas lines and 15 cast-iron stew pots. They paved the floor and stopped using the old wood shavings.

In the 1970s, some of the original iron pots were stolen and they had to rush to a foundry to get more. People still complain the “new” pots don’t cook as well as the originals from the 1930s.

The biggest change, though, was in the stirring. In Beck McLaughlin’s day, it was stirred by church volunteers. But they would wander off to socialize, letting the stew stick and scorch.

“She wouldn’t put up with that,” says her son, Dale. “That’s why they started to get outside help.”

Across the street from the Community House, there’s an African-American neighborhood on Polk and White Road. The church started to hire women there to help. Today, it’s the barbecue’s most famous sight: The long row of steaming cauldrons and 15 black women with long paddles.

Mary Harris, 73, is too old to stir now. But she took over her job from her aunt, and her daughter and granddaughter replaced her. Harris still goes to help out.

“I enjoy stirring those pots, you know?” she says. If someone needs a break, “I can still take a paddle.”

There’s an art to the stirring, the women say. You have to do it steadily, not too fast or slow. You have to put your hips into it, so your arms don’t wear out.

“You take that paddle and go down and go around,” Harris says. “When it goes to popping, when it’s boiling? You’ve got to get your mind on it. It don’t take long after that.”

The women are the only paid workers at the barbecue. They call ahead every year to reserve their favorite pot and to make sure they’re on the job list.

“They’re not church members, but they’re church family,” says Rusty Wallace.

Five-day affair

Making 3,500 gallons of Brunswick stew takes four days and 20 to 50 church volunteers. It starts Sunday, when the church youth group scrubs the pots and pressure-washes the cookhouse. At 2 a.m. Monday, they start cooking the meat.

A few years ago, they switched from whole chickens to skinless, boneless breasts and thighs. Not boning chicken saved hours of work and tons of waste.

The chicken, beef and pork are cooked individually, chilled and ground up. To keep the stew consistent, they set up buckets with the right mix for each batch. It takes all day Tuesday to make enough just to handle the takeout orders.

On Thursday, they light the gas line at 5:30 a.m. and cook stew all day, rushing to keep up with demand. By 10 p.m. Thursday, they’re finally done.

Rusty Wallace’s job is keeping up with all those batches, 225 pots in all, and the crew of volunteers. Richard comes to answer questions, but he makes it clear the job is now Rusty’s.

All that work before the barbecue is the best part, though, say both Wallaces. Past church members come back, family members come from several states away. Church women fill tables with casseroles and desserts to feed the volunteers.

“It’s fellowship, it’s family,” says Richard Wallace. “It’s what life ought to be.

“We’re sort of proud. You can’t tell that, can you?”

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