By Brandon Martin
For the third Saturday in September since 1936, the Spencer Fair has been famous for its Brunswick stew.
While many enjoy sampling the precursor to fall, Jerry Hylton enjoys making the stew and reliving a few the memories while he’s at it.
Hylton, of Spencer, has been preparing the stew since 1985, and his pot will be full again this year.
Hylton said he uses his four biggest pots, each of which holds about 45 gallons. He plans to fill them three times while cooking.
“We make a batch, which takes probably 6 to 8 hours,” he added. “Then we dip that out and start over.”
He plans on making the stew over a 24-hour period, from Friday to Saturday, with pre-sales underway for curbside pickup Saturday.
Hylton said he first learned how to make Brunswick stew in the 1980s, but his love for eating it started while he was a child.
“I had always lived here. When I was small, they had kind of a carnival here, and they had the stew which I enjoyed as a kid. Then later on, when I had my family, I noticed that they didn’t have enough volunteers,” Hylton said.
By then, he had developed an interest in cooking, and Hylton said he thought he could help out.
“I watched the volunteers and kind of absorbed everything that they were doing. The men and women would do it a little bit differently, but overall, it was similar. I just took it all in, and I try to make sure the stew tastes the same as when I was younger,” he said.
Hylton recited the recipe for a gallon of stew. It includes a pound each of beef and chicken, onions, potatoes, cream-style corn, baby Lima beans and crushed tomatoes.
“All of our beef and chicken, we buy and cook here. We don’t buy it in the can,” he said.
Hylton said that he and other volunteers spent the two days before the event cooking the beef and the chicken. They then dip the broth and cut the beef and chicken into small pieces.
“The broth that you get out of what you are cooking is probably the most important thing that you are going to put in the stew,” he said. After the stew finishes cooking, Hylton said volunteers dip it into containers.
With the help of those volunteers, Hylton said he manages to keep the process going each year.
“I started helping then but I didn’t even join the Ruritan until 1992,” Hylton said. “That’s what makes this thing go. It’s not that I have Ruritan members, I have the people in the community that volunteer and come up to help out. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have enough members to pull it off.”
Two days before the event, Hylton said he usually has about 20 people to help. Now because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he said he does all the work with eight people.
“Most of our volunteers are aged 70 and up, so I can certainly understand not wanting to come out for fear of catching the virus,” Hylton said, adding that the rest of the fair also will be different this year from how he remembers it.
“Normally, you’d have so many people in this place that you couldn’t stir them with a stick,” he said. “We’d serve homemade desserts, fried chicken, ham biscuits, potato salad and it’s chaotic.”
Because of COVID-19, Hylton said he decided to at least offer the stew as a to-go option, with pre-ordering and curbside pick-up.
“I thought we could safely do it by offering it to-go. I’m happy that we could at least give people what they are craving and still do it safely,” Hylton said.
While the pandemic has changed the Spencer Fair this year, Hylton said he still has fond memories from his childhood.
“This was the highlight of my year other than Christmas,” Hylton said. “All of the people in the community were here and they had games outside to play. The 4-H had livestock exhibits. They’d judge quilts and canned goods. It was just a festive day. None of that happens anymore, but remembering all of that and trying to get a piece of that feeling again is special. Making the stew is about all we have left of those memories now.”
Selling the stew is the biggest fundraising effort for the Spencer Ruritan Club, according to Hylton.
“It helps us give to the community and the fire departments. We try to help support people and the profits from the stew is largely what sustains us,” Hylton said. “In normal circumstances, we’d clear close to $10,000.”
Hylton said the Ruritan Club typically has an annual auction. The proceeds are used to give a scholarship to young adults who help volunteer during other fundraisers.
“We aren’t going to have the auction this year, so I’m not sure how all of that is going to go,” he added.
Hylton said stew is priced at $30 per gallon and $8 per quart.
He said 400 gallons are dedicated to pre-sales, but expects an extra 100 gallons will be available in case people don’t make it on Saturday.
To pre-order, call (276) 340-1615.