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Get yourself into a stew

Bob Garner

Bob Garner

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Neuse River fish stew is probably as localized a dish as can be found anywhere in the United States. The stew’s popularity seems to be confined largely to areas of Wayne, Lenoir, Greene and Pitt counties within a 50-mile radius of Kinston.

It’s usually a winter thing and is often a “guy thing,” as well, since it’s particularly beloved and nearly always prepared by males.

Picture a pot of simmering tomato stock concealing layers of sliced onions, sliced potatoes and chunks of just about any firm fish, although the most visible ingredients are the dozen or two poached eggs floating around the top of the bubbling pot. The flavor profile is mainstream, not fishy, with a pleasant hint of bacon, and it’s normally only mildly spicy (unless a bunch of men get carried away with the “heat” in a batch they’re cooking for themselves.).

Past generations of fishermen once hauled huge quantities of striped bass and other fish out of the Neuse River in seine nets pulled either by hand or, later, by tractors. Cleaned right on the riverbank, the fish were cut into chunks and layered with potatoes and onions in large iron wash pots, topped off with tomatoes, water and lots of pepper.

The riverbank stew pots were often heated over pine wood and pine bark fires, so one name for the concoction was “pine bark stew.”

The earliest Native American tribes in the Neuse basin probably invented the dish, and similar stews, sometimes called “muddles,” were well documented over a 200-year period in eastern Virginia and along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The late North Carolina food historian Bill Neal wrote in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking,” “Muddle is the traditional feast of the region. The simple vegetables — potatoes, onions, tomatoes — in perfect proportion with the freshest fish achieve the satisfaction sought in all good peasant cooking.”

For the maximum satisfaction of this regional specialty, consider sampling fish stew in Greenville as an opportunity to make a donation to hurricane relief. On Friday, Jarvis Memorial United Methodist Church, 510 S. Washington Street, will be serving fish stew from 4-7 p.m., dine in or take out.

The event takes place at the Taft Christian Life Center. (Enter from Greene Street, across from the Greenville Police Department.) There’s no set ticket price, but all donations will go to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to aid victims of hurricanes Matthew, Harvey, Irma and Maria. For more information, call the church office at 752-3101.

If you aren’t sure about the fish stew, delicious vegetable-beef stew will be available as an alternative. The donation will be as useful and appreciated in either case.

The idea is to get yourself into a stew while helping others get out of one.

Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker.

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