“I’ve been eating chicken mull from the time I could eat anything,” says Charlotte Griffin, the mayor of Bear Grass, North Carolina. In Martin County, people credit her grandfather with the simple chicken porridge, thickened with crackers and seasoned with salt, pepper, and chile flakes.
“Originally, it was just about always for a gathering of menfolk that were either hunting or doing something,” Griffin says. “Somebody was always left behind to make food. Then tobacco came into play, and you had to stay up and tend the woodfire at night, to keep the temperature right for curing. The man responsible wasn’t allowed to sleep, so he’d make a pot of chicken mull, and that way he’d have company come to see him and keep him awake. Since World War II, well, chicken mull has been more for fundraisers and other big gatherings.”
Other parts of the South claim chicken mull, too. The stew is a popular side dish at barbecue joints in Athens, Georgia, and the surrounding area. But cooks in Bear Grass, population seventy-three, have done something that their counterparts in Georgia have not. They have organized an annual chicken mull festival, which will mark its third anniversary this fall.
The winner of last year’s festival cook-off was seventy-one-year-old Derwood Sadler, who led a team from his local American Veterans Post. Although regional variations on chicken mull contain everything from milk and cream to butter, corn, and eggs, his prize-winning recipe calls for only two ingredients, not counting water and seasoning: a whole chicken and a box of store-brand soda crackers. Serve it with hot sauce, cole slaw, and extra crackers on the side.
Martin County Chicken Mull
Adapted from Derwood Sadler, American Veterans Post 227
1 3-4 lb. chicken
1 16-oz. box of soda crackers, preferably salt-free
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Add chicken to a large stockpot with enough water to cover. Simmer until tender, about an hour. Remove from the pot, reserving 2 quarts of cooking liquid. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove skin and meat. Discard skin. Chop meat very finely, return it to the cooking liquid, and return the liquid to a simmer. Crush crackers in their sleeves and slowly add them to the chicken and broth, one sleeve at a time, until the stew reaches the consistency of a loose oatmeal. (Expect to use about 2 sleeves.) Season generously and serve.