Friday, February 22, 2013

Aunt Lillie's Stew

by Sheila Connolly

My husband had a great-aunt who lived in the coal country of West Virginia.  Lillie Mae Williams Taylor was a lovely lady, widowed by the time I met her. Her husband had been a coal miner, and he died of black lung. She lived in a house they had built, not far from Bluefield, on a hill overlooking the tracks where coal trains rumbled by.

My husband and I visited a couple of times, both in summer and in winter, on our way to or from somewhere else.  It was a bit like stepping back in time. Part of her hospitality was making sure we ate well, and as I remember it, she always had a pot of something between a stew and a soup simmering on the back burner of her stove. Aunt Lillie kept a large vegetable garden, and a lot of what she cooked came from that garden.

The vegetable garden
I guess you'd have to say she was ahead of her time:  if you're talking about farm to table, the distance at Aunt Lillie's was about forty feet. She grew no-nonsense things like onions and potatoes, and she also grew a kind of bean that I'd never seen before.  If I remember correctly (sorry, I wasn't taking food pictures that early), it was kind of speckled, and she used them fresh, not dried, saving the seeds over the winter for the next season. (I subscribe to the Seed Savers Exchange catalog from Seed Savers Exchange, and it could be one of the beans there, or it could be something with no name that had been passed down for generations.) She didn't do fancy, just good, plain and very fresh food.

Aunt Lillie's kitchen
My husband and I were comparing our memories and we couldn't agree whether there was meat involved in that always-simmering soup pot.  I don't remember it, but it's easy to picture some ham or bacon going in.  I don't remember herbs or spices or even garlic—which is kind of a testament for fresh vegetables. This was a stew/soup that was all about the vegetables, slow-cooked together for a long time, waiting for the next guest to appear.

Aunt Lillie never used a recipe—she just added some of that and a bit of whatever was ripe from the garden. I'm not sure she knew what an herb or spice was. I can't claim that this is Aunt Lillie's recipe, but it's as close as I can come. It makes a good side dish with dinner, or a good soup with some bread or cornbread alongside.

Aunt Lillie's Vegetable Stew

1 pound fresh green beans, cut into 2" pieces
2 lbs potatoes (use russet/bakers, not the waxy kind. If they're large, peel and cut into 1" cubes; if they're small, skip the peeling.  I used Yukon Gold new potatoes.)
2 onions, coarsely diced
2 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
Cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large heavy pot, heat the oil and sauté the onions and potatoes and cook on medium-low for about ten minutes; add the green beans and cook for another five minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the water or broth and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally.  When you're ready to serve, taste for seasoning, then mash a few of the potato pieces to thicken it.

And that's itsimple food that tastes good.  There's no reason you couldn't add some left-over veggies, or carrots (as I did), or maybe some cabbage. And herbs. A lot of recipes of this kind call for tomatoes, but that makes it a different soup.  Summer versions often suggest squash, but that would disintegrate if cooked for long.  But don't be shy about adding whatever you have on hand—as long as it's fresh!

And one more bit of good news:
Buried in a Bog is #18 on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller list in its second week.


  1. My granny lived in Virginia and across the road were the train tracks that probably carried that same coal. My uncle did coal mining as well. Granny had a small farm so we always had chicken and tons of fresh and fresh canned veggies. They raised a calf every year then we had fresh beef for a year. They also raised a hog so we had pork. My favorite thing she made was apple butter. She had a big castiron kettle she cooked the apples and spices in. The whole house smelled sooo good when she made it. She also made pear butter. I think that was my favorite, but I can't find a recipe for it anywhere. The veggie stew you wrote about is similar to what granny would make, but she usually put a chunk of beef or, like you said pork in it. She never measured anything either thus when I try to make her recipes, I have to guestamate the amounts. Thanks for the trip down memory lane this snowy morning.

    1. Pear butter is done just like apple butter. Cut them up, remove the cores, and cook away. Add some spices and water as needed.
      I'm not fond of pears, but my sister got some bruised ones and cooked them up into butter. Now that I liked!

  2. What a lovely tribute to Aunt Lillie. I live close to that part of the country and can tell you that in some cases, the glorious vegetable garden looks bigger than the house. We have a little country store that sells an assortment of those speckled beans in large bins. Sue, each year at the local festival, apple butter is cooked in a giant cast iron pot and sold on the spot.

    Lillie's soup certainly is healthy, and I bet it's delicious. I love mashing a few potatoes to thicken it. Thanks for sharing Aunt Lillie's story, Sheila.


  3. You're so right about the irony of today's hipsters embracing homesteading and farm-to-table eating. That wasn't so chic (to look poor and work in the dirt) when I was growing up! But Dad was raised on a small farm, and so we grew our own vegetables and my mother and aunt cooked (also not chic or progressive for women to cook, right)? Ah, the trends, how they swing. But freshly picked food and home-cooked meals endured as a thing of value, and I'm so glad they did. Lovely post, Sheila. Men in my family worked in the steel mills (in Western PA), and we had friends in WV coal country, so I can very much relate to your great-aunt, and I'm sure this will strike a chord with many of our followers, too.

    Have a great weekend,
    ~ Cleo

  4. Looks yummy, Sheila, and so simple. Oh, to have big gardens. That's what farmers markets are for, right?

    Congrats on another week on the NYT. Yay!

    Daryl aka Avery

  5. I like your Aunt Lillie. I miss my garden.

  6. The good news is, we had a lot of overhanging tree limbs removed earlier this year, so my garden will get more light. The bad news is, the tree guys with the heavy machines kinda trashed the garden in the process. Now I'm looking at the wreckage and trying to decide what I want to do. I like growing beans, when I have enough light--maybe I can track down Aunt Lillie's.

  7. Aunt Lillie's Stew must mean that spring is not that far away. I think I would really like the stew with a cheddar scone or a bacon chive scone. Thanks for sharing memories & recipe.

  8. I love the posts with stories and photos of your relatives, Sheila. And the recipes too. This looks very good.

    Congrats on nailing that NYT spot AGAIN!!!