Lake Norman & Mooresville

Fall means it's time for Brunswick stew

One of the most distinct of Southern flavors, and the surest signs of fall, is Brunswick stew. My family made an 80-quart stew every year.

We would borrow a huge cast-iron kettle from one of our elderly neighbors and choose a Saturday when there were enough relatives available to help and, later, to share the stew.

It usually happened at that time of autumn when there were no leaves left on the trees but plenty still on the ground; the huge oaks surrounding our house ensured endless hours of gray-day raking.

We would all raid my dad's closet for thick work shirts, the kind he wore while chopping wood.

We looked like a motley crew of woodcutters, in various tartans that recall the color of leaves just a few weeks earlier.

In one long day, starting with early-morning preparation of the meat and potato-peeling, and ending with the twilight goodbyes of loved ones, we prepared enough food to last the season, for those leaf-raking days when you're too tired to start a meal from scratch.

We gave away or stored it in the freezer in quart containers.

The sheer volume of food made us feel like royalty, like we'll never go hungry, and the flavor is unlike anything that could be prepared indoors.

The meat and tomatoes blended together, a pleasing smoky-orange, and the petite butterbeans and corn kernels provide a contrasting texture and reminder of the summer garden.

Perhaps the warm-hued stew was most welcome because it comes at a time when there is very little color to the world.

Covered by brown leaves, patches of grey-white ground, where the grass has been scrubbed away by a regularly treaded path of animal or human, peek upward at an equally gray sky.

The smoke rising from beneath the kettle winds upward, and you acknowledge that the color will not return for several months.

So you huddled together and take turns stirring the stew - from the bottom so it won't stick - with a wooden paddle.

Between turns at the kettle, you crunched through the leaves, made piles and jumped in them, scurried inside for a few minutes' warmth.

Stirring the stew, you'd feel a bit witchlike. Halloween is near, or just past, and you let your imagination drift enough to think, just for a moment, that you see your mother slip some eye of newt into the cauldron, say a little spell, ward off evil.

And, strangely, the day does seem to weave something magic into the winter season ahead.

Whether the fresh air, the hearty stew, the sharing of it, or your mother's conjuring, you weather the winter with few ills, nothing more than a pesky cold.

The real magic of the stew, though, is in the pace of the day.

Rather than flitting, sprite-like, from one activity to the next, you take the time to see one task through, start to finish.

Stirring takes hours of repetitive motion; what seemed like monotony then now feels more like meditation.

Being near the fire wards off cold.

And magically, the stew warms you several times over; once when making it, again when eating it, and now, years later, to remember it, fondly.