As a Southerner and a cook, I often find myself included in lively debates about regional cuisine, long-winded discussions of the dozens of types of barbecue preparations, cornbread recipe swaps, or conversations on the perfect biscuit dough. Those of us who love food treasure the dishes we were raised eating and love to swap recipes and tips.
In my travels, I have done my fair share of boasting about my hometown’s specialties. One dish that I speak of frequently, that is such a big component of The Shoals’ local food culture, is chicken stew. And almost every time I mention it (outside of my home region), no one else in the room seems to know quite what I’m describing.
“Is it like a vegetable soup?” Not exactly. “A Brunswick stew?” Hmm. Not really.
So, I gradually came to understand that this dish—that was as ubiquitous to every neighborhood kitchen as cornbread or tea—wasn’t a staple meal for the rest of the world. In fact, it really doesn’t exist much outside of our small region of the Tennessee Valley.
Truthfully, the origins of chicken stew cannot be traced. And, no one can explain exactly why it is so specific to this region. I remember being told by an aunt that, once upon a time, chickens were kept for the eggs they produced. By the time a family killed a chicken for its meat, it was a “tough old bird,” only suitable for stews and other slow-cooked dishes. As with many rural households, you made the most of what you had and, logically, a stew fed more mouths than one fried chicken. Most likely, as with most regional foods, the recipe was created when poverty crossed paths with farmers, native people, and West African-style dishes. The result, in this case, is a dish that’s similar to existing recipes but that remains explicitly exclusive to one place.
The basic components of a Northwest Alabama-style chicken stew are simple: chicken, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and corn. Some cooks staunchly believe that nothing else is needed or should be added – outside of salt and pepper; others add a few other vegetables to the mix, like carrots, lima beans, green peas, and celery. Most bowls of chicken stew are served with a loaf of white bread or a sleeve of saltine crackers and some Tabasco Sauce.
The dish is so popular here that almost every church, association, club, lodge, or firehouse has chicken stew fundraising dinners at various points throughout the year. My grandmother’s kitchen housed several glass multi-gallon containers that were reserved for chicken stew.
Every Fourth of July, we would gather our huge pickle jars (collected from the high school cafeteria’s kitchen), take them to the church basement, and get in line to collect the evening’s meal. The church’s elders were probably up cooking chickens at first light, stirring the giant vats with oars or paddles and measuring salt and pepper by the palmful. The stews simmered in giant pots or cast iron vessels – though these days, many organizations have upgraded to professional-grade pressure cookers or heavy-duty commercial pans. It may seem odd to associate such a hot, savory stew with one of the warmest holidays of the year – but a tradition is a tradition.
The Southern Foodways Alliance documented our delicious regional specialty in a short film by Joe York, titled “Shoals Chicken Stew.” If you have never sampled this dish, you can find hand drawn signs pointing to a chicken stew fundraiser during almost any visit to The Shoals. In the meantime, here you have my family recipe for chicken stew…it feeds about 50.
4 pounds cooked and pulled chicken
(There is much that can be said about cooking chicken. I like mine brined and baked, as I feel it delivers more flavor. Traditional chicken stew calls for boiling chicken overnight in a large pot and the liquid becomes the stock for the stew. Choose your favorite method and cook chicken to taste.)
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, cubed
1/2 pound white onion, chopped
4 1/2 cups tomatoes
1/4 pound kernel corn
1 lemon, juice of
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Salt, black pepper, and red pepper to taste
Serve with Tabasco and white crackers or bread (I prefer to serve the stew alongside the whole wheat sourdough toast we serve here at The Factory Café)
Add all ingredients in a big pot (preferably outdoors) and boil until all vegetables are done.