On Mallard Creek Barbecue’s Brunswick Stew

Everyone knows that Brunswick stew originated in Brunswick County, Virginia. Or was it the city of Brunswick, Georgia? According to this article on the “complicated” history of the stew by barbecue historian Robert Moss, a claim in 1946 even claimed that the stew was a favorite of Queen Victoria and hailed from Brunswick, Germany. There’s also a Brunswick County in North Carolina but no one really tries to assert that the stew was first made there.

I’m not looking to wade into that war between Virginia and Georgia (for what it’s worth, Moss seemed to come down on the side of Virginia but says that Georgia perfected it). Instead, I’d like to focus on a local version of Brunswick stew served at the venerable Mallard Creek Barbecue. Every year as that 4th Thursday approaches and I link to an article about the preparation for the barbecue in my Wednesday linkdowns, a commenter either on this site or our Instagram or on our Facebook page inevitably comments on the Brunswick stew. Or rather, how the version served at the Mallard Creek Barbecue isn’t really Brunswick stew.

But first, for the uninitiated, the Mallard Creek Barbecue is a one day church barbecue held the 4th Thursday of October every year for the past 90 in North Charlotte. Think about that – in a city where very few things are old, this is a tradition that has been going on for 90 years. Granted, back then the land containing an old school house was vacant farmland not actually a part of Charlotte and has been incorporated in the years since. But my point remains: in a city that doesn’t have many – possibly any – institutions that are 90 years old much less much of a barbecue heritage, Charlotte somehow has a 90 year old annual barbecue. The barbecue is great and any serious barbecue fan in the area should try to attend just once. But back to the Brunswick stew…

Traditional Brunswick stew is a tomato-based thin soup or thick stew that originally was made with squirrel meat along with other a few other meats depending on the location in which it was served (shredded chicken in Virginia, pulled pork and shredded beef in Georgia, shredded chicken and beef and pulled pork in North Carolina). Then, it would have some mixture of potatoes, lima or butter beans, corn, okra, tomatoes, plus potentially a variety of other vegetables. So, to summarize: its either a thick or thin stew but maybe a soup, its made with any number of meats, and its got some veggies but who knows which ones. As you may have gathered, there really is no official recipe.

The recipe for Mallard Creek’s version uses ground chicken, beef, and pork instead of shredded versions of those meats. Lima beans are nowhere in sight and instead only corn and tomatoes are found in the stew. And perhaps most controversially, instead of potatoes, they use rice. Critics argue that the use of rice is filler to make the recipe go longer, but as Charlotte food writer Kathleen Purvis wrote in 2014, their recipe has been used since the 40’s and was more than likely made up by Rebecca “Beck” McLaughlin according to her son Dale since, as he notes “[s]he didn’t go by recipes on hardly anything.” Purvis’ article notes that the breaks from traditional Brunswick stew may have simply been a matter of preference since potatoes got too mushy and lima beans tasted too strong, according to Beck.

The official Mallard Creek Barbecue FAQ even has a question dedicated to the stew, noting “[o]n the practical side, some stews have potatoes – but don’t store/freeze/reheat well, [so] your Mallard Creek Stew will not break down as much, since the rice holds better.” It also notes that rice can’t possibly be used to stretch the recipe since there is “6 times as much meat vs rice (by weight) in each serving of stew.”

While I am really only versed in North Carolina versions of Brunswick stew, I quite like Mallard Creek’s version particularly on days when the sun is shining but the temperature is cooler. Were I to travel extensively in Virginia or Georgia, I have a feeling I’d like those respective versions as well (perhaps Georgia more so than Virginia based on what I’ve read). Regardless, my curiosity is officially piqued and as such, I will be ordering Brunswick stew any chance I get in my barbecue travels now.

I just wish I had gotten a gallon or two from this year’s Mallard Creek Barbecue.

For more on Brunswick stew:

More photos from this year’s 90th Mallard Creek Barbecue:

Midwood Smokehouse has a lot more options than traditional barbecue

Monk: In the years since the original location of Midwood Smokehouse opened in 2011, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ordered non-traditional barbecue (i.e. something other than chopped pork, brisket, ribs, burnt ends, pork burnt ends, etc). But recently I had the opportunity to sit down with head chef and pitmaster Matthew Barry as well as FS Food Group Brand Director Rémy Thurston and Callie Langhorne from M Squared PR, and taste several of their best barbecue-inspired sandwiches and apps.

1930 Cheesesteak

On this day of delicious sandwiches, this was my favorite of the bunch. The Midwood take on a Philly cheese steak uses thinly-sliced smoked brisket and Boar’s Head white american cheese, but what I really loved was the Philly roll that is shipped in from JJ Cassone Bakery of Port Chester, NY, which has been in business since 1910. It had nice, crispy crust and a chewy interior. I learned to love Philly cheese steaks from my high school days working at a Jersey Mike’s, and as good as those are this one simply blows them out of the water.

Pollo Texano

Months before the great fried chicken sandwich debate of late summer, Midwood Smokehouse rolled out their two versions of fried chicken sandwiches in the springtime. The Pollo Texano is the better-selling of the two, and for good reason. The Springer Mountain Farms chicken thigh is brined, smoked, buttermilk marinated then fried before being dipped in a honey chipotle sauce. It is then topped with “angry pickles” and apple- jalapeño slaw, which add crunch and cuts into the sweetness of the sauce. I’m not sure if its intentional, but it pays homage to Carolina dipped fried chicken that is prevalent in the Piedmont of NC, albeit with a different sauce than the vinegar dip used by places such as Keaton’s in Cleveland, NC.

Appalachian Yard Bird

While it’s not the top seller, the other fried chicken sandwich on the menu is nothing to be trifled with. The combination of the same fried chicken thigh as the Pollo Texano topped with pimento cheese and their “angry pickles” is downright comfort food. You would be forgiven if you just wanted to eat this glorious mess of a sandwich with a knife and fork. Thankfully, the sturdy brioche bun from local Charlotte bakery Golden Grains is more than up to the task if you want to take a chance and eat with your hands.

Fatt Matt

The Fatt Matt is a more straightforward version of a barbecue sandwich, with Midwood’s sliced USDA prime brisket topped with the same apple-jalapeño slaw as the Pollo Texano. This tasty sandwich definitely would’t look too out of place in Texas.

Smoked Meatballs

Our appetizer before the course of sandwiches were the Smoked Meatballs, a trio of meatballs made with the smoked trimmings from their briskets. A mixture of smoked jalapeño BBQ sauce and melted cheese tops the meatballs, along with some green onions as garnish. These guys are listed as an appetizer on the menu, but I would’t blame you if you ordered these solo as an entree, maybe adding a side of fries.

More photos…

The Bryan Furman “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s Brought Together Some of Charlotte’s Best Pitmasters

Monk: Bryan Furman, pitmaster of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef, was back in Charlotte last weekend though it was not to continue scouting Charlotte for locations for expansion as far as I’m aware (unfortunately). It was, however, for a “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s BBQ – think a tap takeover at a bar, but for barbecue. That Sunday, DJ Smitty was providing tunes on the patio, Birdsong Brewing was serving beer outside, smoked oysters were a special on the menu, and the line may have been slightly longer than normal but other than that it was more or less business as usual, just with Furman’s very good barbecue instead of Sweet Lew’s also very good barbecue.

The real boon for Charlotte’s burgeoning barbecue community didn’t take place that day but instead the night before, and I was sad to be out of town and unable to experience first hand. There, in the parking lot of Sweet Lew’s, some of Charlotte’s best pitmasters hung out, sampled each other’s barbecue, and assisted Furman in the smoking of several whole hogs. Garren Kirkman from Jon G’s Barbecue brought his brisket and Cheerwine hot links, Michael Wagner and Matthew Berry from Midwood Smokehouse brought their mobile BQ smoker to help smoke hogs, and of course Lewis Donald was there as the gracious host.

I have spoken separately with Midwood Smokehouse’s Wagner and Berry and Garren from Jon G’s about the lack of a cohesive Charlotte barbecue community, and this is certainly a step in the right direction to say the least. FS Food Group (the parent company of Midwood Smokehouse) Brand Director Rémy Thurston has recently mentioned to me that they want to be on the forefront of making Charlotte a true barbecue city, and some things may be in the works to bring these pitmasters (and perhaps more) back together sooner rather than later. All of this makes me hopeful that Charlotte barbecue is on the upswing and I truly believe that the best things are yet to come. World, you are on notice.

The Five Best Barbecue Joints in Charlotte – September 2019

Monk: It’s been over two-and-a-half years since we’ve updated the Charlotte Big Board and as you might expect, there’s been a lot of changes in that time. Longtime readers may recall that finding the best barbecue restaurant in Charlotte was the mission statement when we first started this blog, so we certainly take this seriously. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen (our previous #2) has rebranded as Gibson’s Family BBQ and is a shadow of its former self and fell way out of the top 5. Midwood Smokeshack (previously our #4) closed back in December of 2017 after unfortunately failing to find its footing in Matthews though thankfully pitmaster Michael Wagner is still lending his Texas expertise to the broader Midwood Smokehouse franchise. One thing that has not changed is that Jon G’s BBQ continues to hold down the top spot and always knocks it out of the park every time I am able to try them.

Starting last December, I believe we have entered a new phase in Charlotte barbecue that signals an upswing. That’s when Sweet Lew’s BBQ opened and hit the ground running out of their converted service station in the Belmont neighborhood just outside of uptown. And then of course, Noble Smoke finally opened a little over two months ago off of Freedom Drive and raised the bar even higher with their destination barbecue joint that is the cornerstone of the “Noble Smoke Campus” that will include Bossy Beulah’s Chicken Shack (also from Chef Noble) and the Suffolk Punch Blendery, their second location that will focus on Belgian lambics.

If Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque continues to pursue a Charlotte location (fingers crossed), that would certainly elevate the scene to a whole new level with his traditional whole hog barbecue (something currently missing from Charlotte), brisket, and hash. And who knows, perhaps a restaurant from a currently unknown contender is in the works and can come out of nowhere to challenge for the (queen’s) crown.

There’s no reason why Charlotte can’t mirror the barbecue scenes of Charleston or even Houston, each for different reasons. Charleston got an infusion of outside talent in the past few years in Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in addition to the expansion of homegrown local chains in Swig & Swine and Home Team BBQ. As Charleston-based food writer/historian Robert Moss has recently noted, the Charleston barbecue scene in the past five years has gone from “minor outpost to acclaimed destination.” Seems like Charlotte is always playing second (or even third fiddle) when it comes to the Charleston food scene and in this case, its no different for barbecue. While that may be too much for fine dining, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t match or better Charleston in barbecue.

From afar, the Houston barbecue scene is a little more homegrown but has proven that a barbecue scene can sizzle even in an urban setting (the Houston metro area is nearly 3 times larger than Charlotte). But even in that spread-out urban setting, the barbecue community seems tight knight and the competition appears to be mostly friendly (again, this is from afar as I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Houston yet). When I spoke with Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner from Midwood Smokehouse earlier this year, they cited the lack of community in Charlotte’s barbecue scene as an area for opportunity. Perhaps until that improves, Charlotte can’t become a true destination for barbecue.

For #6-43, check out the Charlotte Big Board here.

And now, on to the only Charlotte barbecue list that matters…

Honorable Mentions: The Smoke Pit, Buddy’s Bar-B-Que

5. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue (review)

The one truly old school NC barbecue joint on this list, Bill Spoon’s has been around since 1963 on what was then a country road south of Charlotte. Charlotte has a bad habit of losing what few institutions it has, whether due to neglect or development, but let’s hope that Bill Spoon’s doesn’t fall victim to that trend because they are still making some fine eastern NC barbecue.

4. Midwood Smokehouse (review)

While somehow our last official review was in 2015 (I plan to remedy this in the coming months), Midwood Smokehouse is still a regular stop for the Monk family and seemingly most of Charlotte, as it has expanded to 4 locations in the greater Charlotte area (as well as one down in Columbia, SC). Not to mention that it’s the go-to spot for any celebrities or figures of note that come into town; President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, Justin Timberlake have all been patrons of Midwood in recent years. Regardless, I will continue to give credit to Frank Scibelli for bringing wood-smoked barbecue back to Charlotte in 2012, saving us from the gassers and faux ‘cue that had plagued the city for decades.

3. Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)

Sweet Lew’s BBQ was recently named to Thrillist’s 33 Top Barbecue Restaurants in the US and Garden & Gun’s Best New Southern Barbecue Joints, and it couldn’t be more deserved for Lewis Donald (the “Lew” in “Sweet Lew’s”) and partner Laura Grice. The menu has been described as “unfussy” and that’s precisely the right adjective for this barbecue shack located in an old service station in the working-class neighborhood of Belmont.

But in addition to the worthy smoked meats and homemade sides (including the only hash and rice I’m aware of in the Piedmont of NC), I’d like to give props to their work in the neighborhood where Donald donates his time and food for block parties and even recently partnered with a local barber shop to give kids free back-to-school haircuts. Now that’s the type of barbecue joint that should be in every neighborhood.

2. Noble Smoke (review)

You may be a bit sick of reading about Noble Smoke on this blog lately, but it has truly given Charlotte a destination barbecue restaurant and raised the bar for the city’s barbecue. Let’s hope others follow suit. Read more from our review here.

1. Jon G’s Barbecue (review)

Jon G’s Barbecue has topped our Charlotte Big Board for 2+ years now, and doesn’t appear to be to be losing the crown anytime soon now that Garren Kirkman (the firekeeper behind Jon G’s) is no longer working full time and is fully in the barbecue game. For that, the greater Charlotte area should be thankful even though it’d be hard to imagine his Central Texas-style brisket getting too much better (in addition to his other meats and scratch made sides). I predict more big things to come from him and his wife Kelly. For any serious Charlotte barbecue fan: SEEK OUT JON G’S BARBECUE.