Try to imagine a truck rolls through Bradford, Tennessee, pulling a sign declaring “God, Family, Doodle Soup.”
Well. Probably you never heard of doodle soup. And the reason is simple: it’s a specialty of Bradford, a small town in the western part of the state. Its population was only 1,053 souls, according to the 2011 census. But what it lacks in density it more than makes up the acidic, cayenne-spicy punch of doodle soup. Quite simply the collected drippings of a roast chicken, augmented with copious amounts of vinegar and hot peppers, thickened with flour, and eaten with crackers or biscuits, doodle soup is, according to the locals, “so laced with vinegar that a mule kick delivers a smaller surprise.”
The soup’s origins are as cloudy probably as its broth: according tosome, it dates back to the Civil War, when locals served it to soldiers, while others say that it was developed as a creative way to use the drippings from the rotisserie chickens that used to be raised by the railroad tracks in town. A final theory attributes the unique name to the “doodle wagons” that used to crisscross Tennessee, selling sundry goods, but nobody has any idea why vinegar became the primary flavor booster.
In any case, doodle soup’s recent history is much clearer. In 1957, Bradford declared itself the “doodle soup capital of the world” and public celebrations began in the late ’70s, when Millard R. Hampton and his fellow Lions Club members began cooking vats of the soup to sell in City Park.
Despite some exception in the ’90s, Bradford has held an annual doodle soup celebration, known as Doodle Soup Days, for about 40 years. Nowadays, the festival, which happens every September giving outsiders a taste of this small kingdom of cultural history, features a stunning calendar of events, from gospel singing and carnival rides to a quilt show, petting zoo, and pork supper for those tired of soup.
Today, every doodle soup cook has their own take on the classic. According to the locals, those who live in the countryside tend to eat it with biscuits, while town residents prefer crackers. Some cooks prefer the soup thickened with flour; some take it more watery. Some pour it over the roast chicken like gravy, and others keep their broth and meat separate.
All, however, agree on the dish’s importance in Bradford.
Despite some residents fear that their children, used to eat more standardized foods, will stop cooking the iconic dish, Bradford’s community spirit continues to celebrate their vibrant speciality as an unending tradition.