Mull, Muddle, and the 12-Gallon Soup Pot: The Secret History of the South's Most Obscure Stew

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

In the ranks of the great yet under-appreciated American barbecue stews, there's Brunswick, a thick concoction of chicken (or beef or pork or any combination of the three) that is slowly simmered with, at a minimum, tomato and corn, and quite possibly onions, potatoes, carrots, limas, green beans, peas, and any other veggie that happens to be on hand.

There's also burgoo, which is found in parts of Kentucky, and the hash and rice of South Carolina, which may or may not be made from pig's heads and livers, but is absolutely delicious (trust me).

Then there's chicken mull, the traditional barbecue stew that no one has ever heard of. A thin, buttery concoction, usually pale yellow in color, it's basically a soupy stew with fine bits of slow-simmered chicken in a rich broth thickened with crushed saltine crackers. It's found in many of the barbecue joints in and around Athens, Georgia, where it's usually served in plastic bowls or styrofoam cups with packs of saltines on the side.

As a dish, chicken mull is simple, pleasing comfort food. But it's also a window into the deepest folds of Southern food history. The story of chicken mull encompasses wild game cookery as well as long-standing traditions of communal soup pots, with "mulls" thrown as events where the stew was cooked by the gallon and ladled out to a crowd.

Most of those who have looked into chicken mull have concluded it was invented in and is isolated to that one part of northern Georgia—a hyper-regional dish if there ever was one. Not too long ago, for instance, some videographers for Zagat headed to Athens to film some mull. They did a pretty good job capturing the essence of the dish but came up dry trying to explain its origins. (You can also witness a fancy-pants Atlanta chef do his best to screw up the traditional recipe by making a gluten-free version and adulterating it further with lemon, garlic, and thyme. No, I don't know why.)

But chicken mull is less isolated than people think. Recently I've been traveling around the South sampling barbecue for Southern Living, and I've come across chicken mull, or something that looks a lot like it but is called by a different name, in pockets of South Carolina and North Carolina, too. Cooks in each region assume the dish must have been invented there because no one else knows what it is.

As it turns out, chicken mull was once known across a large swath of the South, from south Georgia and maybe even Alabama all the way to the coast of Virginia. For a brief period it even had a flicker of fame on a national scale, then lapsed into such deep obscurity that it lingers on today in only a few very isolated pockets.

It's a rather complicated tale, and I'm probably going to make a muddle of it before I'm through, but here goes.

Mulling Over the Origins

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Some commentators, grasping at straws I suppose, have posited that "chicken mull" is a shortened form of "mulligatawny." Like the many derivations proposed for "hoppin' john" and "barbecue," this is one of those absurd conjectures suggested solely by the sound of the word. Apart from the first four letters of their names, mull and mulligatawny—an Anglo-Indian soup of Tamil origin and characterized primarily by its curry seasoning—have absolutely nothing in common.

Instead, chicken mull belongs to a long, proud line of communal Southern stews that were cooked outdoors in big iron pots over open fires—a line that includes the aforementioned Brunswick stew, burgoo, hash, and also the famed rockfish muddle of the North Carolina coast (more on that last one in a moment).

Chicken mull can still be found today not just in Athens, Georgia, but out in the countryside of eastern North Carolina, too. In October of 2014, the town of Bear Grass (population 73), which is about 20 miles northeast of Greenville, held its First Annual Chicken Mull Festival. 13 teams prepared 65 gallons of stew for the mull-cooking competition.

Like mull cooks in Georgia, the ones in eastern North Carolina assume they're the only people making it. When a reporter asked him what mull is, Derwood Sadler, a member of the winning American Veterans Post 227 cooking team, replied, "It's just a Martin County thing." Though the texture of the North Carolina version is a good bit thicker, the two essential ingredients—chicken and crackers—are the same.

On their website, the Bear Grass festival organizers provide an important clue to dish's history. The "What is Chicken Mull?" page notes that chicken mull is "also called Chicken Muddle." That opens a whole new angle, for "chicken muddle" is yet another highly-regionalized slow-cooked, iron pot stew. It was the specialty of southeastern Virginia, especially Greensville County and the town of Emporia, which is not far from the North Carolina line.

Chicken muddle, in turn, is a variant of the older and more broadly documented "fish muddle," which has a long history on North Carolina's Outer Banks and in coastal Virginia—and it can still be found today if you look hard enough.

The earliest muddle recipes were pretty simple—just fish, onion, potatoes, and spices. It was traditionally made from rockfish—known in other parts of the country as striped bass. When the fish were running, they were caught by the hundreds and cooked right on the riverbank in cast iron pots, the ingredients slow-cooked down to a rich, thick mush.

Fish muddle dates back to at least the antebellum days, and like "barbecue" and "chicken mull," the word was used to refer both to the food itself and to the large gatherings at which it was served. In 1852, the Raleigh Times reported that the Whigs of Halifax were planning an assembly near North Carolina's capital and as "a prompt and large attendance of the Whig party" was desired "a Rock-fish muddle will be provided for the occasion!"

In the latter half of the 19th century, fish muddle was found primarily in a region stretching from Greensboro, North Carolina, up to Petersburg, Virginia. In some descriptions, crackers were substituted for the potatoes as the thickening ingredient, and over time cooks started adding more stuff into their stew.

In the 1950s, "The Rockfish Muddle King of North Carolina" was Frank Stephenson of the Como section of Hertford County, North Carolina, not far south of the Virginia line. His famous version included tomatoes, country bacon, eggs, crackers, peppers, and onion. Other recipes from this period include additions like baby limas, corn kernels, celery, and bell pepper.

From Rockfish Muddle to Chicken Mull

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Cooking the muddle at the Woodmen of the World Rally, Emporia, Virginia (1935)

Over time, cooks started using different type of meats in their muddles. In the 1890s, a number of newspapers and outdoorsmen publications like Forest and Steam make reference to "squirrel muddle" as a hunting or camping dish. The St. Louis Republic somehow got wind of it in 1897 and described it as squirrel meat cut into pieces and put in a pot with water, salt, red pepper, a quart of corn, a quart of tomatoes, and a teacup of fried meat grease, ideally from a "Virginia-cured side meat."

By the 20th century, cooks were frequently making muddles with chicken, too, and that version became as commonplace as fish muddle in some parts of Virginia. The town of Emporia, located in Greensville County near the North Carolina border, seems to have been the epicenter of chicken muddle. In 1935, hundreds of guests attended a "monster rally" of the Woodmen of World in Emporia, which featured, as the Richmond Gazette reported, "a 'chicken muddle' served to all sovereigns and their families." Annual muddles raised money for the Emporia Volunteer Fire Department as early as 1936, and it's been a long-standing fundraiser for the Ruritan Club as well.

For much of the 20th century, E. W. Morris of Emporia was considered the top chicken muddle cook in Greensville County. He started making the stew around 1930, learning the technique by helping older men in the community prepare it.

To make 50 quarts of muddle, Morris started off with 10 whole hens, which he cut into pieces and covered with water in a 60-gallon black iron pot over an open wood fire. As it simmered, he added whole tomatoes, butter beans, and corn kernels—all from gallon-sized cans—along with 10 pounds of peeled potatoes, five to six pounds of cooked smoky bacon, and 15 pounds of chopped onions. Salt, black pepper, and paprika were the only spices.

Morris cooked his muddle between three and four hours, stirring it constantly with a thick hardwood stick with prongs on the end to continually scrape the bottom and keep the ingredients from sticking to the bottom. As the chicken cooked down and the bones slipped away from the meat, he used tongs to remove them.

Morris was adamant that using deboned chicken wouldn't do. "The flavor of that bone and the marrow in that bones makes that muddle taste good," Morris told an interviewer in 1983. "You take the damn bones out of there, you done played hell with it."

Those familiar with Brunswick stew will note that what E. W. Morris was making bears a strong resemblance to that more widely known Virginia classic. Asked the difference between the two, Morris pointed to the cooking, not the ingredients: "Brunswick stew can get soupy. You want to cook that muddle 'till it gets down thick."

By the early 20th century, the term "muddle" evolved into "mull" in many stew-cooking parts. Say "chicken muddle" with a mouthful of saltine crackers (which are traditionally served alongside the stew in Georgia barbecue joints) and you can hear how natural an evolution it would be. Better yet, watch this 1983 video with Emporia muddle-master E. W. Morris himself, who was 76 years old at the time. There's not a hard "d" to be found in his pronunciation of "muddle."

The first appearance of the spelling "chicken mull" that I've found in print was in South Carolina's Greenwood Index-Journal, which reported in March of 1923 that a "Spencer May entertained at a 'chicken mull' party." The term must have already been in use farther south in Georgia, for the Index-Journal noted that while Florence, South Carolina, was famous for fish stew "it remains for the great state of Georgia to give us chicken mull."

But how sure can we be that the "chicken mull" being made down in Georgia is actually related to the Virginia muddle that E. W. Morris was famous for? Both do contain chicken, but today's Georgia mull is a bare-bones milk-based stew while the Virginia muddle is a tomatoey concoction thickened by limas and potatoes—essentially, a thicker version of Brunswick stew.

Two main pieces of evidence support the link. First, the version of chicken mull found in Bear Grass, North Carolina, which is sometimes called chicken muddle, is very similar in preparation to the kind found in Athens, Georgia—that is, a rather basic white stew made from chicken, milk and/or eggs, and crackers. Bear Grass is an awful long way—450 miles—from Athens, but only 78 miles from Emporia, Virginia.

Second, we have those accounts of "mull" from Greenwood, South Carolina in the 1920s, which provided instructions for making Georgia-style chicken mull. You take one chicken, boil it "'till the meat leaves the bones," and put it through a grinder. Then you put in the pot a half-pound of butter, one can of tomatoes, one can of sweet corn, and one pod of red pepper.

Up to this point, the instructions are basically the same as those for Virginia-style chicken muddle, and for Brunswick stew, too. But way the stew is finished differs. For the Greenwood version, you add the ground meat back to the pot along with a pint of sweet milk and "thicken with cracker crumbs if necessary."

Over time, it seems, cooks relied more and more on milk and cracker crumbs to shape the texture of their stew, gradually omitting tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables.

Bulldogs, Turtles, and Squirrels

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Georgia-style chicken mull had a brief flurry of fame in the 1940s thanks to Wally Butts, the head football coach of the University of Georgia, who guided the Bulldogs to national championships in 1942 and 1946. Butts took to hosting a big chicken mull for the sportswriters who attended the Bulldog's pre-season open practice day. The scribes sat around an outdoor fire sipping coffee and enjoying the milky stew while listening to Coach Butts and his assistants elaborate on their prospects for the upcoming season. Though they all seemed to enjoy the event, it provided them little substance for their columns since, as the Augusta Chronicle noted, "Wally Butts talks in circles as round as his own tummy line, which is very spherical indeed."

In his "Young's Yarn" column, Fred Young of the Bloomington, Illinois Daily Pantograph described the preparation of Bulldog-style chicken mull:

Minced chicken and half as much turtle meat are stewed in an old fashioned pot such as is used for boiling clothes in the country. When the stock is ready, a dozen quarts of whole milk and some butter are added. After this has been thoroughly merged, Worcester [sic] sauce, salt and pepper are added. Finally a half bushel of cracker crumbs are stirred in and it is ready to serve.

The turtle meat, Young noted, "gives a certain flavor to the dish that provides the ambrosian effect."

With the exception of the turtle meat, these are pretty much the same ingredients used in chicken mull today at places like Hot Thomas's Bar-B-Q in Watkinsville, Georgia and Butt Hutt Bar-B-Q in Athens—though nowadays it's generally cooked indoors in stainless steel pots on gas burners instead of old iron wash pots on outdoor fires.

Chicken mulls were popular gatherings in the 1950s and 1960s on either side of the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina, where they were enlisted for political rallies, fundraisers, and community celebrations. By this point, though, mulls made from turtle and rabbit were on the wane.

In 1970, Roscoe Long of Roscoe's Kountry Kitchen in Crawfordville told the Augusta Chronicle, "I'm the only restaurant around that serves turtle mull...in the old days most everyone made it, but now they don't." Long's version contained ground turtle meat, potatoes, onions, red pepper, garlic juice, and milk. As for the turtles, he used mud turtles, snapper turtles, and "just pure old turtles"—basically, whatever anyone would catch and sell him.

Georgians weren't the only ones who used to put game meat in their mulls. Up in Virginia, Emporia chicken muddle master E. W. Morris also made a version using 25 to 30 squirrels along with two chickens. "That chicken pulls that wild taste out of the mull," he told an interviewer in 1983. "That's the best muddle that's ever been cooked."

I've never been fortunate enough to come across the squirrel or turtle varieties, but I have sampled a fair amount of chicken mull at various Georgia barbecue joints (and the very similar "chicken stew" at Midway BBQ in Buffalo, South Carolina). It's a simple but quite pleasing dish—rich and creamy, the fine shreds of chicken almost insubstantial in their tenderness. It's especially pleasing on a cold winter day.

I can only imagine how wonderful it must be when eaten outdoors, ladled fresh from a big cast iron pot simmering over a wood fire. And if you slip in a little turtle meat in for that ambrosian effect, well, that sounds down right delicious, too.