Stews have a long history in many world cultures; archaeological evidence suggests that humans may have made stews for 8,000 years or more. In the Amazon, tribes used turtle shells as stewing vessels, and other cultures used large clam shells to boil food. A Roman cookbook from the 4th century AD contains recipes for lamb and fish stews. One of the oldest French cookbooks, Le Viandier, written in the 14th century by Taillevent, describes various ragouts and stews. But, beyond what archaeology and surviving cookbooks tell us, the history of stews is murky.
Take, for example, feijoada, a black bean and pork stew that has become Brazil’s national dish. The traditional origin story for feijoada is that slaves in colonial Brazil’s mining districts, coffee plantations and sugar cane regions were fed diets limited to rice and beans. On special occasions, less desirable cuts of pork (skin, snout, ears, feet, belly) were distributed as well, slaves added them to the beans and feijoada was born. From there more elaborate versions moved to plantation houses and, eventually, to the restaurants of Rio de Janeiro.
Recently some Brazilian food authorities have brought that history into question by claiming that feijoada has closer ties to the pork and bean stews of southern Europe, especially Portugal, than to anything uniquely Brazilian. Both are ways of slow cooking and tenderizing less noble cuts of pork in a thick bean stew. They differ in that feijoada calls for black beans, which are not typical to southern Europe, while the European stews are usually made with kidney beans, white beans or chickpeas.