Chicken Mull: The Rarest Stew in Barbecue?
"You going to get mull?" asked the woman behind the counter at Hot Thomas Bar-B-Que. "We just made it fresh."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. I had actually known I was going to order it the minute I spied it on the menuboard, for chicken mull is a rare bird in the world of barbecue.
Most barbecue fans are well-acquainted with Brunswick stew, that savory, soupy blend of meat and vegetables that can be found in countless incarnations throughout Georgia, the Carolinas, and eastern Tennessee. True connoisseurs can delineate the finer points of Kentucky's burgoo and South Carolina's hash and rice, but chicken mull is an old-time barbecue stew that few people seem to have ever heard of, much less tasted.
It's a thin, buttery concoction, usually pale yellow in color, containing chicken that's been simmered down to tiny shreds. Typically, it's served in a plastic bowl or cardboard tray with a packet of saltine crackers on the side.
"It's real simple," the woman at Hot Thomas told me when I asked what went into their version. "Just milk, crushed crackers, butter, pepper, and spices." Judging by sight and taste, those "spices" may be nothing more than salt.
Mull is a highly-regionalized dish, and mull cooks in one place assume it must be unique to their particular area, since no one they talk to elsewhere seems to know what it is. Hot Thomas Bar-B-Que is in Watkinsville, Georgia, about 15 miles outside of Athens. The Athens Locally Grown web site notes that mull is "One of the few recipes native to Georgia, and is actually unique to just the Athens area."
But I recognized north Georgia mull immediately when I first encountered it, for it was exactly like the creamy concoction I remembered enjoying at Midway BBQ in Buffalo, South Carolina, though there they just call it "chicken stew."
Folks in eastern North Carolina might recognize it, too. Back in October, the town of Bear Grass, which is about 20 miles northeast of Greenville, held its First Annual Chicken Mull Festival and dished out 65 gallons cooked by 13 competing teams. When asked what mull is, Derwood Sadler of the winning American Veterans Post 227 team said, "It's just a Martin County thing." Though the texture seems to be thicker in North Carolina, the two essential ingredients—chicken and crackers—are exactly the same.
My suspicion is that, like an endangered species, chicken mull was once known across a wide swath of territory ranging from eastern Virginia down to north Georgia. But, over time, its habitat has dwindled until just a few isolated pockets remain. If you happen upon a barbecue restaurant with mull on the menu, be sure to order a bowl. Warm, rich, and soothing, it's the perfect companion for a chopped pork sandwich on a gray winter day.