by Leanne E. Smith
Sixty-five gallons of chicken mull disappeared in less than a couple of hours on Saturday, October 25, 2014, when the town of Bear Grass in Martin County, NC, held its First Annual Chicken Mull Festival.
Bear Grass is in the middle of Martin County in Eastern North Carolina, about 20 miles northeast of Greenville and eight miles southwest of Williamston, the county seat. As of the 2013 Census, 73 of Martin County’s approximately 25,000 residents lived in Bear Grass. The town limits today are the same as when it was incorporated in 1909 and marked in a method few NC towns used: a 500-yard radius from a white oak by a well near two stores, which gives the town an area of about 0.3 square miles. (“Bear Grass,” “Williamston”)
With the downtown area closed to vehicle traffic for the event, craft, gift, and food vendors lined a couple of blocks of Bear Grass Road (State Road 1001) from near Joe Mobley Road, past the Presbyterian and Primitive Baptist churches and Bear Grass School (now Bear Grass Charter School), where a sign on the building reads, “We’re fortunate to be small. We’re not the biggest, just the best.” The center of the festival’s activity was across the street from the school in the lot beside the former Bear Grass Teacherage, now the Ruritan Club.
After the 5K Mull Mush and 1-mile Fun Run/Walk, scheduled entertainment included the BGCS band, Gracie Ju Jitzu, Sarah Hardison, Twirling All-Stars, Molasses Creek, Eternal Collision, Craig Wynn and Country Gold, and Dymond City Express—but the crowd provided some of its own (“5K Mull Mush,” “On the Stage”). Children captured a wandering yellow-chicken-suited mascot to pose for pictures, and in front of the Ruritan Club, families held children up to see through the cut-out face of a painted plywood chicken like the one on the fast-selling festival t-shirts. The staff’s Day-Glo orange shirts read “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Good-natured celebration of the festival’s namesake dish continued from the stage when, unable to resist an opportunity for a pun, Molasses Creek’s Fiddler Dave said the band was wary of the festival at first because band co-founder had been “mulled” by a chicken, but they were really happy to be there.
Lines formed well before noon with those waiting debating whether to pay $2 for an 8-ounce Styrofoam cup, $3 for a pint, or $5 for a wristband giving all-you-can-eat access to the mull made by thirteen individuals or groups competing for three golden-chicken-topped trophies. Four judges sampled the mulls, and decided Rusty Roberson got third place; the “Wynne-ing Team” represented by Eric, Trent, and Brent Wynne got second place; and first place went to the American Veterans group represented by Jim Bell, Carroll Jones, Derwood Sadler, and Kenny Wallace. The other three AmVet representatives credit Derwood Sadler as the winning cook, and he credits the cook he learned from—Grover Barber.
But the food itself—what is chicken mull? “It’s just a Martin County thing,” Derwood Sadler said, “Outside the county, people don’t know what you’re talking about.” He remembers chicken mull being around for his whole life. He guesses it may have started as a hunting camp food. It is, after all, an easy dish to make in washtubs or stew pots.
The festival website claims the dish for Bear Grass:
In the Martin County town of Bear Grass, Chicken Mull has been the lunch of choice for decades of Ruritan Club sales and other events….the exact origin of Martin County-style mull is not documented; however, locals are confident the beginnings occurred in Bear Grass. To date, there is no evidence to oppose these beliefs. Likely born from cooks simply using what they had, Chicken Mull has become a comfort food that spans generations. It is the goal of the Chicken Mull Festival to introduce the town of Bear Grass and this southern specialty to more people. It is our hope this will help to pass along the desire for families to keep making this meal for years to come. (“About”)
The festival site also mentions it’s possible to find variations of chicken mull or chicken muddle online—and it’s true: the New Georgia Encyclopedia includes an entry, but while the context is similar (“served in bowls and eaten at home, in restaurants, in hunters’ camps, and at special events such as church socials, community gatherings, and fund-raisers”), the process and the ingredients differ. Upstate South Carolina claims related dishes, and in Georgia, the mull may also be called stew or jallop depending on the region; it could be made with other meats, cut or ground, and additional thickeners like milk and butter; and vegetables may be more prominent. (“Mull”) But that’s there, not here.
Here—in a community foodways tradition apparently overlooked in the compilation of the Encyclopedia of North Carolina—chicken mull’s two essential ingredients are chicken and crackers. Some variations at the festival included chopped boiled egg and even bits of celery and bacon, but adding anything beyond salt, ground black pepper, and red pepper flakes isn’t really standard. To make mull, boil the chicken till it’s done; then take out the bones, skin, gristle, and everything but the chicken itself and the broth; shred the chicken; and add crumbled crackers. Sadler says the most popular cracker locally is Zesta brand, but the AmVets figured out using the cheapest kind they could worked better: Baker’s Harvest Saltines. The other secret is fat chickens: “The fatter they are, the better the mull,” Sadler said.
Chicken mull has the potential to become salty—as several versions were at the festival—especially if the chicken is cooked with salt, if the crackers are salted, and/or if the cook or taster adds salt. Eaters can add more salt, pepper, or hot sauce to personal tastes. The consistency is like chicken and pastry after it’s been stirred around and maybe reheated a time or two. That’s certainly not a negative characteristic, just a texture comparison. And mull is, admittedly, something first-time tasters may be wary of because of how it looks.
About winning first place, Sadler said, “This proves we’re the best in the county.” Anyone wanting to try the mull, and the AmVet version in particular, doesn’t have to wait till the next Chicken Mull Festival. The members of AmVets Post 227 have a regular role in perpetuating the local mull tradition: On first Fridays at the Piggly Wiggly in Williamston (712 Washington Street), they host a fundraiser for which they make four 40-quart pots and one 60-quart pot of chicken mull. The experimentation they did to get their recipe right for the decade-old fundraiser helped them win the first year’s festival contest.
The monthly fundraiser is where two of the day’s AmVet representatives at the festival first tried it. Kenny Wallace, from the Everetts area about seven miles north of Bear Grass, has been involved with the AmVets for four years and was skeptical the first time he tried the mull. “Wow, this is different,” he thought—but it was good, and now he looks forward to the first Friday fundraisers. Jim Bell “can’t wait for the first Friday” either. He retired to the area from New York City. He has family nearby and enjoys being able to live in a place where the pace is the opposite of the City’s bustle, yet he can still visit up north when he wants to. The mull fundraisers have become significant in multiple ways—for the veterans, for the community, and for the future of the mull.
Carroll Jones, the fourth AmVet representative serving the winning mull, says the most enjoyable part of the first Fridays is the companionship with other veterans because “when vets get together, we all have common interests” and the program connects them with “people who know what you’re talking about and understand your feelings.” At the fundraisers and now the festival, he says, “It’s good to hear people come back and tell you how they enjoyed it. It’s very good for Bear Grass to do this. Community events like this are very important this day and time, especially for the young people.”
Photo credits: Leanne E. Smith
Leanne E. Smith, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the English Department at East Carolina University, is also active in the Folk Arts Society of Greenville and is a member of the Green Grass Cloggers. A freelance writer, editor, and photographer, she occasionally plays fiddle with Elderberry Jam, the Possum Hoppers, and Red Pen Ramblers. She is working on a book length manuscript about the Green Grass Cloggers’ 40-year history. She currently serves on the board of the North Carolina Folklore Society, and after two years as Assistant Editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal, she was named editor in summer 2014.
“5K Mull Mush & 1-Mile Fun Run/Walk.” Chicken Mull Festival. Chicken Mull Festival. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.chickenmullfestival.com/5k-mull-mush–1-mile-fun-runwalk.html
“About Chicken Mull.” Chicken Mull Festival. Chicken Mull Festival. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.chickenmullfestival.com/what-is-chicken-mull.html
“Bear Grass.” Visit Martin County, NC. Martin County Tourism Development Authority. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.visitmartincounty.com/towns-bear-grass.aspx
“Mull.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 2014. Georgia Humanities Council and University of Georgia Press. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/mull
“On the Stage – Festival Entertainment.” Chicken Mull Festival. Chicken Mull Festival. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.chickenmullfestival.com/entertainment-on-stage.html
“Williamston.” Visit Martin County, NC. Martin County Tourism Development Authority. 26 Oct. 2014. http://www.visitmartincounty.com/towns-williamston.aspx