Totally Stewed

What has 130 pounds of hens, 85 pounds of boneless chuck, 85 pounds of Boston butts and 50 or so pounds of deer meat? If you answered “the Phillips Boys’ Brunswick Stew,” you’ve hit the big stir paddle right on the handle.

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Like Christmas, this granddaddy of all stews comes around only once a year. That could be due, in part, to chief cook Neon Bobitt, who laughingly claims there’s not enough money in the world to get him to tackle it twice in 12 months.

Brothers W.R. “Billy” Phillips and T.L. “Bud” Phillips set out three decades ago to host a small Brunswick stew for friends and associates of Phillips Contracting Co. When no one was looking, a tradition was born. Now in its near 30th year, the Phillips’ gathering each fall at Magowah Gun Club in the Lowndes County Prairie brings anywhere from 600 to 800 men to the big, black 100-gallon pot brimming with a hearty stew so thick, a stir paddle will stand straight up in the middle, all by itself.

“When we started, Daddy was still with us,” reflected Bud, referring to the late W. R. “Bill” Phillips Jr., who brought his sons into the business. “Now, it’s just become a tradition people really seem to look forward to. We made the decision that we wanted to keep it going as long as we were able.”

Billy and Bud, now 74 and 72 respectively, have passed the reins of the company to their grown sons. Billy’s boys, Bob and Stuart, and Bud’s son, Doug, proudly join their dads in hosting the multitudes.

“We really like doing it because it may be the one time a year we get to see certain people, and a lot of folks say the same thing,” said Billy, greeting guests on a mild autumn night as they arrived at the gun club. As the crowd grew, the scene was filled with halloos, handshakes and good-natured back-slapping.

Bud observed, “It’s just a fun time for everyone; everybody’s in a good mood.”

And when the time came, retired businessman Burt Wheeler picked up a plate and positioned himself to be the first in the stew line. That, too, has become a long-standing tradition.

Bud laughed, “There may have been one year Burt wasn’t first — I think the governor got in front of him.”

There are never any political speeches, but on average, “25 to 30 politicians” from local to national levels may come to this gathering that traces back to the big social deer hunts of decades past.

Thirty and more years ago, the now-late Bruce Sansing, who hunted with the Phillips, would make up 20 to 30 gallons of winter stew with whatever game was in everyone’s freezer. That escalated to the larger company gathering. Along the way, Bobitt signed on to assist. He’s now been chief cook for at least a quarter century.

THREE DAYS EARLIER
Preparing a fine Brunswick stew ain’t for sissies, as Bobitt can attest. On Saturday morning before the Monday night feast, he and about 10 others were busy at a separate cooking site in East Columbus. Seven or so helpers pulled meat, while others manned three 75-gallon vats bubbling with broth and other ingredients. Tantalizing aromas hinted at the concoction to come.

The process is long, but camaraderie helped pass the time. Bobitt had been on the scene since 5 a.m. He took five days of vacation from his Sears job to maestro   this stew.

The 100-gallon black serving pot, empty for the time being, sat loaded on a trailer, ready for transport to Magowah. It will take six men to unload and set it up. (Burt Wheeler actually discovered the massive old vat, partially buried in the ground where it had been used for watering cattle. Wheeler, an experienced stew chef himself, recovered and repaired it.)

Once the cooked meat is combined with other ingredients, two men will be assigned to stir the hot cook pot all day with 4-foot long white oak paddles.

“Once we have it on the fire, it has to be stirred all the time. You can ruin a stew by scorching it,” cautioned Bobitt. “And I don’t scorch my stew,” he added with a wizened grin. “The stirrers have to rotate every 15 to 20 minutes, or they’ll give out.”

Bud Phillips stopped by the cook site to lend moral support.

“The calorie count?” he asked, when the subject came up. “There’s no telling; we never figured it out. … I don’t think we want to know,” he laughed.

WORTH KEEPING
As good as the robust stew is every first Monday of October, the annual feast is really much more than a great meal. It’s become a ritual, an observance that maintains the ties that bind, ties of friendship, family. Ties of community. That much is clear in the genial hub-bub as friends old and new catch up at picnic tables laid end to end like rustic railroad tracks in Magowah’s long open-air pavilion.

Three decades ago, Billy and Bud didn’t foresee the legacy, but with a second generation — their sons — now hosting alongside, the Phillips boys feel good about its future.

Billy’s sentiment may sum it up best: “Thirty years from now, I hope there’s a line of Phillips’ grandkids, still puttin’ on a Brunswick stew.”


THE PHILLIPS BOYS’ BRUNSWICK STEW

130 pounds hens (quarters)
85 pounds boneless chuck
85 pounds Boston butts
10 pounds chopped beef fat
40-50 pounds deer meat
100 pounds chopped onions
100 pounds red potatoes
80 pounds frozen baby limas
80 pounds frozen cut okra
9 cases 1-gallon cans tomatoes
1 case Hunt’s tomato juice
6 boxes boiling corn (96 ears/box)
2 gallons English peas
2 gallons purple hull peas
2 gallons Worcestershire sauce
6 large bottles (12-ounce) Tobasco sauce
2 gallons ketchup
2 large cans black pepper
2 boxes salt