A truck rolls through Bradford, Tennessee, pulling a sign declaring, “God, Family, Doodle Soup.” Never heard of doodle soup? That’s because it’s a specialty of Bradford, a small town in the western part of the state. While Bradford’s population was only 1,048 strong as per the 2010 census, what it lacks in density it more than makes up in pizzaz, specifically, in the acidic, cayenne-spicy punch of doodle soup. Made of roast chicken drippings mixed with copious amounts of vinegar and hot pepper, thickened with flour, and eaten with crackers or biscuits, doodle soup is, according to the Tennessean, “so laced with vinegar that a mule kick delivers a smaller surprise.”
The soup’s origins are as cloudy as its broth. Some say the soup dates back to the Civil War, when locals served it to soldiers. 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.
Doodle soup’s recent history is much clearer. In 1957, Bradford declared itself the “doodle soup capital of the world.” Public celebrations of the special soup 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. With the exception of some festival-less years 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, 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 all the chicken.
Every doodle soup cook has their own take on the classic. Those who live in the countryside tend to eat it with biscuits, while town residents prefer crackers. The divide between the two is fierce. Some prefer the soup thickened with flour; some take it more watery. Some pour it over the roast chicken like gravy; others keep their broth and meat separate. Finally, cooks may substitute rabbit or squirrel for the roast chicken, but, say locals, never possum. All, however, agree on the dish’s importance in Bradford. While some residents fear that their children, reared on more standardized diets, will stop cooking the iconic dish, Bradford’s community spirit continues to pack as vibrant a punch as its signature soup.