What in the Heck is Chicken Mull?

The story of an obscure but tasty Georgia barbecue stew

By Robert F. Moss

Chicken mull and saltines at Hot Thomas BBQ, Watkinsville, GA
Chicken mull and saltines at Hot Thomas BBQ, Watkinsville, GA
Georgia is famous for its Brunswick stew, a savory blend of slow-simmered meat and vegetables that is the perfect accompaniment for a chopped pork sandwich. But the state also boasts another equally delicious but much less known barbecue stew: chicken mull.

That’s right: chicken mull. It’s a thin, creamy concoction that’s pale yellow in color and brims with tiny shreds of long-simmered chicken. Mull is usually served in a plastic bowl or a small cardboard tray, with packets of saltine crackers on the side.

These days, you’ll find mull only in a handful of barbecue restaurants in the area in the northeast part of the state around the college town of Athens, places like Hot Thomas in Watkinsville, Bill’s BBQ in Hull, and Butt Hutt BBQ in Athens proper. Its range, though, was once considerably wider.

Some folks have suggested that "mull" is a shortened form of "mulligatawny," citing no evidence beyond the fact that the thin chicken stew and the curry-seasoned Anglo-Indian soup both start with the same four letters. This is the school of food history we like to call “just making stuff up.”

Chicken mull is actually a variant of the term “chicken muddle” Like Brunswick stew and hash and rice, "chicken muddle" is a traditional slow-cooked, iron pot stew from the days of big outdoor community feasts. A century ago, it was a specialty of southeastern Virginia, especially the town of Emporia near the North Carolina line.

Chicken muddle, in turn, is a variant of the older "fish muddle," which has a long history on North Carolina's Outer Banks and in coastal Virginia. Back in the old days, when rockfish (a.k.a striped bass) were running, fishermen caught them by the hundreds and cooked them right on the riverbank in huge iron pots over a wood fire, layering in fish, onion, potatoes, and spices and cooking them for hours on end until they were rendered down to a rich, savory mush. (For a full account of the evolution of mull from fish muddle, see the history I wrote for Serious Eats.)

By the early 20th century, the term "muddle" evolved into the slightly-shortened "mull" in many stew-cooking parts, and it had spread from Virginia down into the Carolinas and Georgia. Wally Butts, the football coach at the University of Georgia in the 1940s, was known for the huge outdoor chicken mulls he staged each summer for the sportswriters attending the Bulldogs’ first pre-season practice session, and the reporters got even more excited about the stew than the scrimmage.

Wally Butts of the University of Georgia knew how to impress a bunch of sportswriters (Augusta Chronicle, September 5, 1946)
Wally Butts of the University of Georgia knew how to impress a bunch of sportswriters (Augusta Chronicle, September 5, 1946)

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. Chicken was the most common meat, but local cooks were also known to put turtle and rabbit in their stewpots, too.

By 1970, though, turtle and rabbit mull was on the wane. That year, 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.

Over time the recipe became simpler. At Hot Thomas BBQ in Watkinsville, the ingredients are just chicken, milk, crushed saltine crackers, butter, pepper, and spices. And it really doesn’t need anything more.

The chicken stew at Midway BBQ, Buffalo, SC
The chicken stew at Midway BBQ, Buffalo, SC

Though the Athens area remains your best bet for finding chicken mull today, it’s not totally unheard of in other parts of the South. The version served at Midway BBQ in Buffalo, South Carolina, is a dead ringer for that found down in Georgia, but in Buffalo they call it just “chicken stew.” In the town of Bear Grass in eastern North Carolina, they hold annual Chicken Mull Festival where teams compete to cook the best version.Though the texture seems to be thicker in North Carolina, the two essential ingredients—chicken and crackers—are exactly the same.

So, the next time you are passing through northeast Georgia and make a barbecue detour, be sure to keep an eye out for mull on the menu. It’s a splendid regional treat, especially on a cool winter day.

For Further Reading

An Introduction to Georgia BBQ

The Great Barbecue Men of Augusta, Georgia

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.