Before delving into the hotly debated origin of a southern staple, let’s begin with a somewhat-retorical question that has confounded me for decades: Why do barbecue joints feel compelled to hang retired license plates from their walls?
There… got that out of the way. On to bigger and better things.
The Golden Isles are a string of, well… isles off the coast of southern Georgia. Unlike their big sisters to the north (Hilton Head Island and the coastal region of Charleston) and the swathe of tourist traps between Jacksonville and Miami, this string of islands are much less known and visited, their coastlines more unbuilt, and their hotels, restaurants, and beaches less saturated with tourists. All of this amounts to some fantastic choices for weekend getaways that beat the crowds and respect the budgets. Each isle has its own character and charms, but my favorite to visit is St. Simons Island.
Courtesy of AirBnB and a lovely woman named Mary, my family of three was able to stay on the island in a fully-furnished one-bedroom apartment — complete with a kitchen — for $60 a night. A boon for the budget traveler, AirBnB keeps money normally allocated to finding sleeping quarters available for more more fun and interesting applications, like dining and seeing the sites.
Our plan was to keep the budget as trim as possible, so we decided to stock the kitchen with groceries from the Winn Dixie, saving our shekels for local activities and gasoline to get us there. But we had just arrived on the island, and our two-year-old was becoming ornery in the back seat — a tell-tale signal that it was time for food.
As we rounded the rotary near the island’s municipal airport, an old service station came into view. It was repainted to resemble a barn, and there were scores of people crowded under an aftermarket awning structure seated at unpainted picnic tables. Not expecting too much, we pulled into the lot and sat down for a bite.
The establishment was called Southern Soul Barbecue, and the rich waft of smoking hickory convinced me of how hungry I was. A snaking line at a small restaurant is almost always a strong indication of good things to come, and the extensive menu seconded the motion.
“What would you like?” asked a perky cashier wearing a banana-yellow ‘Got Barbecue?’ t-shirt, her stringy blonde hair twisted into a sort of half-ponytail, half-bun.
“I don’t know… what would you recommend?” I inquire as the snaking line mumbled a unison groan.
“Well, everything’s good,” says she.
Just a note for all of you food servers out there: that is a silly answer. If I ask for a recommendation, it turns out I am looking for a recommendation. So if you think that something on the menu particularly shines, say so! I (and many decent people like me) will express our gratitude when we leave the tip on the table.
So I pushed her a little bit. “It’s my first time here. If you could only order one thing off the menu, what would it be?”
“Um, well, the combo platter is good, then you can try a few different things.”
“Okay, the combo platter. I’ll take that.”
“What meats would you like?”
“I will have whatever meats are the best.”
“Well, which ones would you like?”
Members of the line-snake eyed blunt objects like sugar canisters and butter knives, considering the damage they would do to my cranium.
“Put meats on my plate that you would be happy to eat.”
The cashier gave me a look that was somewhere between dirty and speechless.
“Okay…” she drawled, “What would you like for your side?”
“Hmm…” I said thoughfully, index finger on my chin, “What’s your favorite?”
“Fried green beans,” she answered quickly and without hesitation.
I thought that sounded gross. “Fried green beans it is,” I remarked, thrilled for such a clear directive.
Perhaps you join with the line-snake-cohort in being frustrated with the likes of me — the ones who hem and haw at the counter, the ones who ask slew of questions, the ones who treat food ordering as a sacrosanct act. But BlinkPacking is all about maximizing an experience, amping up every opportunity to make a great adventure out of not much. If I only have time and money for one lunch at a local restaurant in St. Simons, I want to be sure I am eating the most delectable offerings of the establishment.
The food arrived somewhat unceremoniously, handed to me by a beachy-looking college-aged male in a black, sleeveless, “Got Barbecue?” tank.
We tucked in. The pulled pork and smoked turkey breast both shredded at the slightest brush of a fork prong. The mangled tears swam around the platter, mingling with the Carolina vinegar sauce, or the mustard-based sauce, or the peppery spice sauce blend to form an array of savory, potent bites, each one a bit different from the others. The smoky morsels filled my nose with tangy aroma as I devoured them, and I took great delight in wrapping the succulent meat bites in torn bits of the softest, whitest slice of loaf bread ever served, topping each mini-sandwich with a dab of this or that barbecue sauce concoction.
And those fried green beans — served with a side of homemade ranch — were fiery-hot, thickly breaded, perfectly crunchy, and simply divine. The entire pile disappeared from the platter in a matter of minutes. I love how southerners are willing to take anything and everything that is healthy, blanket it in breading, and blast it with molten oil in a fryolater. Viva la heart attack.
It was all good; so very good. Worthy indeed of adorning a BlinkPack blog post. But there was an item on the platter — a humble bowl of stew — that was far and away the winner of the lunch. I have sampled many Brunswick Stews in the past, always enjoying the delicate meat strands and array of vegetables blanketed by a velvety, orange, smoky broth that is both salty and slightly sweet at once. But this small serving, plated in a round styrofoam bowl, was the king of them all, each flavor somehow both distinct and blended, and the textures coming together to form an epic, pepper-flecked stew worthy of national fame.
Keen observers will note that Brunswick Stew was clearly named after something, someone, or some place called ‘Brunswick’, and it so happens that across the bridge from St. Simons Island, there is a town named the same. The locals of this jurisdiction readily claim that the famed southern soup finds its origin in this region, with the supposed first pot in which it was conjured forever enshrined in a public monument (seen above).
But the locals of Brunswick County, Virginia take offense at the claim, stating instead that a Virginia state legislator’s chef invented the recipe in 1828 on a hunting expedition. And others believe the stew may actually herald from Braunschweig, Germany. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)
Whatever the origin, this humble side dish, thick and meaty enough to stand alone as a hearty and satisfying meal, is as varied as the establishments that serve it and the cooks that conjure cauldrons of it. A child of the north, I am thrilled to have discovered what I am learning is the southern version of ‘Grandma’s Chicken Soup’ — with each rendition passionately embraced by some and loathed by others.
If BlinkPacking in the south, tuck this tip into your back pocket: this savory, satisfying food is available at every barbecue stand, and a thick, filling bowl will only set you back a few bucks.