With a name like that, of course, I couldn’t resist the recipe.
What on earth did that mean? It seems that no one else knew either, thanks to a Google search and more.
So I decided to split up the word, to look at components rather the whole.
One tantalizing bit of information kept cropping up: Mull.
You see, all the way from North Carolina to Georgia, there’s a creamy concoction called “Mull,” or stew, as defined in John Mariani’s Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (1983). A form of barbecue, as it were, cooked in huge pots and served thick with crumbled saltine crackers.
At first glance, I wondered whether or not the recipe owed its origins somehow to the Portuguese, via the Angolan and Brazilian slave trade?
However … there’s probably a lot more to the story than meets the eye.
It was the turmeric and the pepper that really caught my attention.
Look at what William Kitchner says about a popular British-Indian dish, “Mulligatawny”:
Mullaga-Tawny signifies pepper water. The progress of inexperienced peripatetic Palaticians has lately been arrested by this outlandish word being pasted on the windows of our Coffee-Houses; it has, we believe, answered the “Restaurateurs’ ” purpose, and often excited John Bull, to walk in and taste—the more familiar name of Curry Soup—would, perhaps, not have had sufficient of the charms of novelty to seduce him from his much-loved Mock-Turtle. It is a fashionable Soup and a great favourite with our East Indian friends, and we give the best receipt we could procure for it.
~The Cook’s Oracle; Containing Recipes for Plain Cookery on the Most Economical Plan for Private Families (1827)
Now let’s look at Miss Rutledge’s take on things.
Mulacolong (The Carolina Housewife, page 80)
Miss Rutledge wrote the recipe as follows:
Cut a fowl in pieces, and fry it brown. Cut a large onion, and also fry that brown ; add three pints of good veal sauce, a little lemon-juice, a little turmeric, and season to your taste.
What do we learn from reading the original recipe?
- Chicken, probably one whole fowl
- Fat source – probably lard, perhaps butter
- Veal sauce: note that it doesn’t say “broth” or “stock”
- Lemon juice
- Seasonings – salt, and ?
You need a skillet or other heavy pot, a sharp knife for chopping the onion and cutting up the chicken, and something to measure a pint with. With the idea of “pepper water” in mind, it makes sense to consider black pepper, because there’s no mention of chiles in this recipe.
Here’s how I interpreted the recipe:
4 chicken thighs, skin on, which I had on hand
2 T. bacon grease
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin
1 1/2 cups strong chicken broth
Juice of one lemon, about 1 1/2 Tablespoons
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
I dried the chicken pieces and salted/peppered them, while the bacon grease heated up in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Once the chicken pieces browned on both sides over medium-high heat, I took them out of the skillet and tossed in the onions. When the onions turned slightly golden and browned at the edges, I added the stock, using less than the recipe called for because 3 pints is 6 cups, which is fine if you wish to make soup, but I was of the same mind as Ms. Gay (see below) and wanted more of a gravy texture to the liquid. In went the lemon juice, recalling the medieval touch of acid to sauces, the turmeric, and finally, the black pepper, 1 teaspoon, which gives the sauce a bit of bite! I returned the chicken to the sauce and covered the skillet, turning the heat to low, simmering the dish for about 30 more minutes. When the chicken was done, tender to the bone, I took it out of the skillet and placed it on deep platter. The sauce seemed a bit thin, thanks to the juices from the chicken, so I cooked it down over high heat until the sauce coated the spoon like a coating of honey. Pouring the sauce over the chicken on the platter, and before serving the chicken, I sprinkled a bit of parsley over the chicken pieces.
I discovered that in 1930, Lettie Gay and Blanche Rhett took Miss Rutledge’s recipe and clarified it a bit in 200 Years of Charleston Cooking:
The marching rhythm of this name is entrancing. It’s origin is as mysterious as the flavor of the dish itself.
A bird which has reached the age politely spoken of as “uncertain” may serve as the piece de resistence of any dinner and reflect glory on the hostess if it is prepared in this manner. Young chickens may also be cooked using somewhat less veal stock and reducing the time of cooking. 1 fowl 1 large onion, chopped 3 pints veal stock 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. turmeric, salt and pepper.
Cut the fowl in pieces and fry it until it is well browned. Then add the chopped onion to the fat and allow this to brown also. Add the veal stock, which should be very strong, and the turmeric mixed with the lemon juice.
Season with salt and pepper and cook until the chicken is tender. The stock should cook down so that it forms a rich gravy which should be served over the chicken.
Marcie Cohen Ferris provided a recipe on page 216 in her book The Edible South, adding oranges and yams.
Now, I could very well be very wrong about the connection of Mulacolong to Mulligatawny, but the seacoast location of Charleston, the English connection, and India trade makes me think there’s something to it.
Check out my new book, “A Hastiness of Cooks”, for more on how to analyze historic cookbooks and recipes, making old dishes new, etc.
Charles C. Doyle, Mulling over Mull: A North Georgia Foodways Localism, Midwestern Folklore 29 (2003): 5-11.