’Round these parts, we know how to turn a stew into an occasion. From the Brunswick variety to chicken mulls to crawfish boils, there are few things we enjoy more than huddling around steaming pots filled with something boiling and local, surrounded by good food and good people. Of these dishes, one of the oldest and most steeped in Southern tradition is the Carolina Fish Muddle. Its list of ingredients may be short, but its history is not, spanning centuries and peoples but dedicated to a fairly small region of the South.
The Carolina Fish Muddle, or the Rockfish Muddle, is a dish hearkening back to a time before most Southerners even came to populate the region. Native Americans, taking advantage of a plentiful harvest of local rockfish, created great stews with the tasty swimmers. As Europeans began settling along the currents and gullies of Eastern North Carolina and Virginia, they too began incorporating rockfish, also called striped bass, into their diets.
When the rockfish ran once a year, Southerners of the Outer Banks would gather along the shores of streaming waterways with boiling pots ready to toss in the bounty of fish. Hundreds of rockfish filled the pots, along with a few other simple ingredients: onions, potatoes, and basic spices. Cooks allowed the fish and veggies to cook down to a mushy, stewish consistency, then ladled limitless servings into waiting bowls.
Like other Southern traditions, like fish fries, pig pickin’s, and even the much-disputed barbecues, “fish muddle” refers to both the food eaten and the occasion itself. Fish muddles wriggled their way into local tradition, becoming annual gatherings centered around a fishy feast following the running of the rockfish. Entire communities came together around massive cast iron pots suspended over open fires to watch their labors come to tasty fruition. The ability of such events to feed the masses made them popular outside the riverbanks, as well, at other gatherings like church homecomings, political rallies, and festivals.
Like most recipes, the instructions for a Carolina fish muddle became, ironically, muddled over time. More vegetables found their way into the stew, like tomatoes, lima beans, peppers, and green beans, as well as other meats, like bacon, and thickeners to replace the potatoes, like crackers. Through the 1950’s, the Rockfish Muddle King of North Carolina, Frank Stephenson, used a recipe of tomatoes, bacon, eggs, crackers, peppers, and onion to create his favorite muddle. As the rockfish population began to decrease over the latter half of the twentieth century, more and more families began to replace the traditional fish with chicken (that recipe, many argue, is the distinguishing factor between a fish muddle and a chicken mull).
A dish that grew out of a season of regional abundance today spans both regions and seasons. You’ll find recipes for fish muddles in Southern publications and Northern ones alike, but the tradition itself is unique to us. The recipes may change and the ingredients alter, but as long as there’s a South, you can pretty much guarantee there will also be some folks gathered around a stew pot exchanging dishes, both verbal and edible—and some of them may be a little fishy.
SEE MORE CAROLINA FISH MUDDLE IMAGES HERE