The telephone won't stop ringing at Rob Evans' house.
It's that time of year. When the air turns cool and leaves begin to fall, palates gear up for brunswick stew, and Evans, known far and wide as the ``Stew Man,' is in demand.From early October through late March, the Eden resident is sought after by organizations and clubs to cook up batch after batch of his savory mixture.
``I cook for softball teams, baseball teams, the Moose Lodge, the VFW, churches,' said Evans. ``Two or three times a week they ask me. Sometimes I have to say no because of my health.'
For 35 years Evans, 87, has been practicing his avocation of magically mixing meats and vegetables to create the popular stew. For at least 25 of those years, Evans has cooked stew for St. Mary's-by-the-Highway Episcopal Church south of Eden.
Church members attest to the dish's popularity.
``We have had people to call and take as many as 100 quarts,' said Camilla Hutcherson, a member of St. Mary's-by-the-Highway. ``All of it is sold before we make it. People will be waiting in line for it. Sometimes when people don't pick it up, other people will be standing with money in hand.'
Evans' stew recipe is a carefully guarded secret. When asked about it, he taps a finger to his forehead.
``It's in here,' he says.
The octogenarian, a member of the ``if it ain't broke, don't fix it' school, has not altered the stew recipe since the beginning.
``The old recipe be all right,' he said. ``If you change it, you mess it up.'
Evan's recipe, or the attempt to duplicate it, is a sore point with him right now. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery to some, but the ``Stew Man' will have none of that; he's mad. Pulling out a well-folded clipping of an advertisement for a local stew sale, he explains the source of his anger.
``Three or four weeks ago there was a stew on Boone Road,' Evans said. ``They said it was Rob Evans' recipe. It wasn't. It upset me.'
Although Evans likes to keep his exact recipe to himself, he will divulge what he puts into his 100-gallon stew pot: beef, chicken, 48 gallons of vegetables, including tomatoes, cream-style corn, mixed vegetables, potatoes, onions and lima beans. The only spices he pops into the pot are the old standbys.
``Salt and pepper, that's it,' he said. ``Don't put too much in; you can't take it out.'
Evans begins preparing for a Saturday stew in the middle of the week, when he orders the beef, chicken, potatoes and onions. Members of the church or other sponsoring group gather Friday evening to peel the potatoes, cut the onions, and debone and cook the chicken and beef.
At 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Evans gets to work. First into the pot are the potatoes and onions; the vegetables and meats are thrown in at various intervals. Evans constantly stirs the thick mixture with his personal paddles, of which he has two.
``If you scorch that stew, you can't eat it,' Evans explained. ``You've got to keep that paddle going.'
``He has never lost a stew so far as sticking,' said Hutcherson.
After the stew is fully cooked, members of the sponsoring group ladle it into one-quart plastic jars and begin handing it out to eager customers.
Evans' reputation as the ``Stew Man' has traveled far and wide. He has cooked stews in Virginia and the mountains of North Carolina as well as around Rockingham County. He even had a chance to go international once after some visiting British folk tasted his stew.
``He had an offer to pay his expenses to England if he'd come and do a stew for them,' said Hutcherson, ``but he didn't. He said it was a little bit much.'
Because the mixing and long simmering of the stew are done outdoors, Evans always has to deal with the elements when cooking his concoction. That can make for some less-than-ideal conditions.
``I cook in the rain, when it's pouring down snow, when it's 10 degrees, all day long,' he said.
But sometimes the elements do cooperate. Several years ago at a stew in Draper, rain looked imminent.
``I prayed it wouldn't rain so I could get the stew out,' Evans said. ``I said, 'It ain't going to rain today.' '
He was right - up to a point. After selling all the stew under gray but rainless skies, Evans got in his car and headed home. Only then did the heavens open up.
Evans, a retiree from American Tobacco Co., is passing along his chef's skills to his son, J.R. The younger man often accompanies his father to the cooking sessions and relieves him when the old arms tire of the constant stirring.
``My son cooks as good as I can,' Evans said proudly.
The ``Stew Man' talks halfheartedly of quitting his avocation - his back bothers him - but somehow the will to quit just isn't there. Evans enjoys people and the pleasure his skills bring them too much.
``I've got to quit - one of these days,' he says.