I’ve been absolutely fascinated by chicken mull since we first discovered it back in the spring at that fundraiser up in Danielsville. It really shines a light on my deficiencies as any sort of food writer, doesn’t it? I lived in Athens for a dozen years and, despite the “think global, act local” bumper sticker, I never heard of the stuff for a decade after moving. That said, it’s certainly not a common dish in the region, nor is it even really known far and wide under that name. Wikipedia has an entry for it, but there it’s called Southern chicken stew. They may not make it with squirrels or turtles anymore, but mull is one of the region’s last, best-kept secrets, and not very many restaurants keep it on the menu.
A couple of months ago, I e-mailed Hilary Brown, the food writer for Flagpole, which is Athens’ alt-weekly paper, to ask whether she knew of anyplace else that served mull, as the only evident “best bets” were a barbecue place that I never liked and the old Gateway Cafe north of town near the bypass, which has since closed. Hilary, who also contributes to the very entertaining Shazhmmm with Garrett Martin, let me know that the restaurant at UGA’s Georgia Center for Continuing Education occasionally serves it, but that I’d have better luck trying The Butt Hutt, a new barbecue joint that opened last year on the top of Baxter Hill.
One Wednesday last month, I went to Athens and stopped in to try a bowl for myself. I didn’t bring in my camera or consider the restaurant as a whole for a chapter here, I just wanted a nice snack before I got back on the road home. And, oh, it was good. It was thick, creamy and chewy and probably better than the wonderful stew that we had up in Danielsville a couple of months previously. I told myself that I definitely needed to try the rest of the menu the next time I was in town.
So last week, my son and I loaded up on a giant lunch at The Smith House in Dahlonega. I figured, wrongly, that after an hour and a bit’s drive and a couple of hours playing downtown, we’d both be peckish for something more. Call it an early supper or a second lunch. Well, I was peckish, but then again, I had not eaten my weight in sweet potatoes.
Athens, it must be said, is not a barbecue mecca. It never has been, although two of the best joints in the state are just short half-hours’ drives north or southeast. Intown, however, there have always been somewhat slim pickings. I was too late to town to try the legendary Walter’s, and didn’t think much of the place that moved into its location. The Barbecue Shack and Jot ’em Down are tasty if not too inspiring, and the Athens outpost of Mike & Ed’s of Phenix City did not last very long.
The very best barbecue in town, by leagues, was Carrithers, which was in that low-ceilinged red building on Milledge near the bypass. They had amazing Carolina-style hash and a hot sauce that was like rocket fuel and legend has it that Keith Jackson, the greatest television sportscaster of all, declared it the best barbecue in the world. Unfortunately, in 2005, Carrithers became possessed by the spirit of a last lunch and impending breakup with somebody that I never, ever wanted to see again, and I figure it was the lingering bad vibes that shut the place down within a year. I have that effect on restaurants.
I mention this because, in a town where “pretty good” is about as good as it gets, it’s possible to damn with faint praise. But the Butt Hutt, despite its ridiculous misspelled name, really is something special. This is easily as good as Carrithers at its best, and they serve mull as well.
The place is teeny, and it’s decorated with the sort of dorm room minimalism you’d expect from any business located within spitting distance of Russell Hall, with a Blues Brothers poster greeting guests. There’s a small table outside that nobody in their right mind would use in the middle of July, or, since the table is a pebble’s throw from the gas pumps of the convenience store that occupies the same building, any other time, either. Who the heck wants car exhaust and gasoline fumes interfering with their meal?
The pork is really quite good, although the serving is a little smaller than I’d like. There are four different sauces at the tables, each of them very tasty. Between us, my son and I enjoyed some yummy curly fries and some amazingly good baked beans in a lip-smacking sauce, and this heavenly mull, which he got to try for the first time. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy the mull. Crunch up some saltines and that becomes an absolutely perfect little side, and honestly accompanies chopped or pulled pork served with a tomato-based sauce even better than Brunswick stew does.
People used to joke about how my son was a bottomless pit. He spent the weekend in Ellijay with Randy once while he still lived up there, and Randy and his mother still talk about how much breakfast my son put away. But all those sweet potatoes and creamed corn earlier in the day proved impenetrable, and the nap he had afterward was not enough sleep. He had some mull and about half a sandwich and a few bites of beans and the bottomless pit had his second food coma of the day. “Folk have wondered for years whether you had a bottom,” I said. He raised an eyebrow and said “Huh?” in something of a high-pitched whine. “That didn’t come out right,” I said, hiding my face in my hand.
There are so many other good restaurants in town that I would like to feature here that it’s tough to justify multiple trips to the same place on my monthly-or-so visit to Athens. I’m currently debating which of about four places to revisit when both kids and I head back to town at the end of July. But I can absolutely get behind a little snack stop at the Butt Hutt for a bowl of mull before we leave. Or a snack or two at the Taco Stand. Or… damn, there are too many good restaurants in Athens and not enough room in my belly for all the food I’d like to enjoy every single visit.