Turtle Stew (2014)

Stan Woodward on the making of this film

Turtle In A Stew: The National Turtle Day of Sutherland

Stan Woodward on the making of this film, edited by Daniel Patterson

During the four-year run of conducting field research and shooting my story of Virginia Brunswick Stew while teaching TV field production at C. D. Hylton High School and serving as Distance Learning Network Coordinator for the Prince William County public schools, I met a Methodist minister from Brunswick County. He had begun raising money for missions at his small church there in Southside Virginia by using and expanding his wife's recipe for Brunswick stew. She had learned it from those in the county who were maintaining the secret recipe of the stew's proverbial originator, Uncle Jimmy Matthews, in 1828. "I've moved from church to church pastoring all over the Commonwealth, and wherever we go, my wife and I carry our 100 gallon iron stewpot with us and raise money for church missions by cooking ol' Jimmy Matthews Brunswick stew. I guess we must have introduced the stew into more than ten communities around the state."

While interviewing Reverend Harry Byrd Jones, he paused at one point and said, "You know, Stan, the quirky way you are shooting this documentary spontaneously and with your type of personality you need to go up the road to Olgers Store and get together with the owner, Jimmy Olgers. You'll have a big surprise in store for you. You and Jimmy would hit it off immediately." "What makes you think we would hit it off," I asked. "He is truly an old-South raconteur, he has old timey ways, and once you get him started talking about Brunswick stew it'll be hard to stop him. Jimmy has never met a stranger. He sits on the porch of the old country store he was born in and was run by his parents and he's turned it into a museum. He rules the roost from that porch, waves at cars that toot as they drive by and welcomes strangers who are drawn to the site by all the stuff he has gathered for sale in front and the huge American and Confederate flags he has mounted across the front of the old store."

I headed to Jimmy Olgers store and when I pulled up a man in outlandish shorts and a huge yellow T-shirt was under a canopy carrying on with customers from Pennsylvania who clearly were under his spell as they sorted through the glass items on the tables. I said "Excuse me. I'm shooting a film on Virginia Brunswick stew. Are you Jimmy?" Jimmy spun around and said, "I sure am. And I can tell you all you want to know about Brunswick stew. My Mama made the best Brunswick stew of anybody around, and you want me to tell you what she put in it?....

This began my five year relationship with Jimmy and was the first of many shoots with Jimmy. I came to know the man behind the extroverted cross between clown and imminent historian of the Civil War and specifically the battles fought around his village of Sutherland and the Ante Bellum family home he and his son restored across from Olgers Store. I spent many hours on the porch with Jimmy, the man who drew the attention, affection, and loyal following of so many locals over the years that never was I there that Jimmy wasn't entertaining two or more of these regulars with his stories, poetry, and comic jibes with visitors.

On one visit a man drove up in a dirt encrusted pickup truck, got out and brought up onto the porch a large object wrapped in a small blanket. A huge smile broke out on his face as Jimmy greeted him with, "Oh my Law looka whose done come with another turtle! It better be a big-un, boy, because I got the king turtle settin' in the top of my freezer. Y'all know what he's here for don't you", he called out with a huge laugh to porch sitters and customers sorting through old stoves, bicycles and other paraphernalia out front, as he led the way to the far corner of the porch where stood a giant freezer unit standing six feet tall. Following was the man with the blanket. "Let's see what you got, man", Jimmy declared. The man unfolded the blanket and inside was the largest snapping turtle I'd ever seen in my life. "Oh my Lawd," Jimmy shouted so all would come gather around the end of the porch. "See what you got here! Lord have mercy, Jacob, I swear! That might be large enough to outdo the standing world champion turtle I have here in the freezer!" With that Jimmy jerked open the door and out of the top of the refrigeration unit slid a huge turtle encased in ice falling freely towards one of the onlookers. Jimmy lunged and grabbed it as did two friends, keeping it from striking a woman standing down below.

"Lord have mercy, that coulda killed a patron. Struck her in the head and plumb sent me to prison. How lucky we are we all could catch and grab this gigantic current champion turtle entry into the contest for the National Turtle Day of Sutherland before it killed someone! Now let's hold this champion turtle we have so far up against your turtle, Jacob." After a gasp, Jimmy declared, "My Lawd lookahere everybody. Jacob, you done out did the current champion I do believe! This one weighed in at 76 pounds. Let's weigh yours." After setting the turtle on the scales Jimmy let loose a howl and cried out, "My Mother's britches! Eighty one and a half pounds! A new champion turtle to put away in the freezer to await the final prize to be awarded during the National Turtle Day of Surherland! In the meantime everybody is invited out to the Little House in the Woods (a small, humble house in the woods nearby used by Jimmy to hold what he called "Ol' Timey black pot cooking" for his friends and invitees) where I will cook this runner up turtle for dinner!"

This sets the opening of my documentary titled, "Turtle in a Stew: The National Turtle Day of Sutherland". I begin with an establishing shot of Olgers Store as my voice-over describes the adventure I am taking my viewers on. I speak of National Turtle Day of Sutherland and describe our ride with Jimmy to his Little House in the Woods, and that on this day Jimmy will be cooking a turtle fricasee using a turtle brought to him that did not measure up to the current champion and therefore would serve as the meal for Jimmy's friends who had been competitors in the past as well as old standbys who attended every one of Jimmy's meals cooked at Little House. We turn off on a dirt road and pull up to the Little House, where we are met by a busy youngster carrying kindlin to the wood stove in the house kitchen. This is a young apprentice cook, the grandson of the man who tends the store when Jimmy has to be away.

 This begins a full morning of preparation, including Jimmy's commentary over footage of the turtle getting away and having to be chased down prior to his going under the knife and being tossed into a huge black pot boiling with water with a fire stoked by Jimmy. We follow Jimmy through every stage of preparing home grown vegetables and breaking down the turtle into parts that Jimmy describes as ranging in taste from steak to chicken to veal to alligator to liver to quail to roast beef. As the day proceeds, one by one a set of characters arrive, each lending color and stories to the legend of Jimmy and his one pot meals cooked in the old fashioned way.

We end with the arrival of a number of past winners of awards at the National Turtle Day of Sutherland who join in on the feast. This documentary takes the viewer first-hand deep into a folk heritage foodway documentation that is rare, entertaining and loaded with history and the culture of agrarian life in Southside Virginia. Length: 56 min 40 sec

Note: The other film that came out of my first encounter with Jimmy and includes a tour of his unusual country store museum is titled, "Lord Have Mercy: Olgers Store" (36 min)