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How to Barbecue Chicken: Shenandoah Valley Chicken BBQ

May 21, 2016


About 4:30 a.m. on almost any Saturday morning from the first of April until late November, here in the Shenandoah Valley you can drive into almost any town or past a country church and get a whiff of charcoal, glimpse a flume of smoke.


Or maybe you’ll even see walls of fire flaring up from charcoal beds edged by 20 to 30 foot long walls of cement blocks or metal, forming the longest grill ever.


It could be organized by the Lions or the Ruritans or the Jaycees or the Moose Lodge or the Rotary or a high school marching band or the Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren.


The groups of mostly men come together to grill 500 or 750 or 900-1000 halves of barbecue chicken for the easiest—and hardest—fundraiser ever: almost a guaranteed success with the leg-thigh-wing-breast half going for $3.50 or $4 each. You can buy cheaper whole rotisserie chicken at Costco, but it won’t be made by a community.

And that’s the real secret seared into the chicken: you cannot make chicken barbecue for 1000 people without a community of workers who—yes—argue sometimes about how to make the sauce, when to put it on, when to take the chicken off, yadda yadda. But, mellowed into the savory sauce, the succulent white meat, the juicier dark—is teamwork.


Yes, the literal stuff as in two muscled men gripping the racks loaded with 60 pounds of chicken twisting their arms in exact synchronization so the meat can flip sides. But also the emotional, memory-making stuff: the sometimes deep conversation, the catching up from a grueling week of work, the care expressed for the ailing or the grieving, the “our-chicken-is-better-than-their-chicken” boasts—and ultimately, helping fund projects that better the whole community without raising any taxes. This is fellowship at its best. This is what makes a place “home.”

The sales are so popular I’ve heard of groups that run out of chicken in 20 minutes. People wait in long lines for a half hour or more, in order to be sure and get some before the sellers run out. And this is at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. I always wonder, what meal are they serving the chicken for anyway? Breakfast? (Seriously, most folks take it home and refrigerate it and serve it later in the day.) A chicken barbecue seems like an easy money maker because it sells so fast. Generally, you don’t have to push it on people. In a few hours, you’ve netted $800-$1200 dollars, as opposed to selling candy or brooms or cheesy junk from a preschool fundraiser brochure.


But hefting 60-75 pound boxes of iced chicken,


freezing your hands off (if it is chilly) putting iced chicken halves on the racks,


managing to keep the charcoal fires hot and burning without charring and blackening your chicken, flipping the huge racks filled with 30 or so halves without any falling out … well, it’s not for chickens. Err, light lifters.


At our recent Broadway Lions barbecue, I did manage to douse the chicken frequently with the homemade “Lion Club sauce” (trade secret here of Lion Dan and Lion Churchill) and wore out my poor li’l ole’ wrists just doing that. Another time, maybe I’ll show up to help sell—which isn’t for the fainthearted either, when the clock nears noon and you still haven’t sold all your halves.


The recipe I will share here comes from another favorite source, my father, who back in the ’50s made barbecue chicken with an oil and vinegar type recipe—no tomato or ketchup or anything red in sight. Daddy loved nothing better than hosting a chicken barbecue at our farm—sometimes back at the cabin—using his half barrel homemade grill loaded with one full rack of chicken—probably about 30 halves, too. He went in full director mode and we kids or friends marched to keep things going: the fresh white work gloves he had to have for handling the chicken; the rack he kept carefully clean; the pot of sauce he stirred and sopped on using a special small “mop;” the squirty bottle to douse flare ups; and most of all the wondrous taste of his chicken fresh off the grill.


Vernon Miller/Stuart Davis Chicken BBQ

A country vinegar-based sauce from my father, Vernon Miller; his recipe came from the “Farm Bureau.” However, in these parts of Virginia, they claim it as a Virginia recipe, and a variation of this is used everywhere including the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. In the proportions I have below, this is a nice amount for a cookout for family or guests, and will do 5-6 chicken halves or 10-12 boneless chicken breasts or pieces.

Proportions can be multiplied and ingredients added to your taste.

1 cup vinegar
1 cup water
½ cup margarine (or vegetable oil)
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup salt
½ teaspoon pepper

Other seasoning as desired:

½ teaspoon chili
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Dash sugar or honey
Dry mustard
Dash Pete or Tabasco sauce

Heat together and keep hot, but not boiling. Douse chicken frequently as you grill: 2-3 hours for chicken halves, 30-35 minutes for chicken tenders. Turn chicken halves every 15- 20 minutes. Reserve some sauce to steam finished meat with when you take it off the grill: you can put it into a 5 qt.Dutch oven and pour small amount of “clean” sauce (some that has not encountered raw meat) over the chicken and keep warm until served, or steam for 5-10 minutes.


What experiences in “community cooking” have you enjoyed?

Or would you rather do your own thing in your own kitchen, thank you very much? (i.e. when too many bosses spoil the broth?) 

What other values does this kind of teamwork teach/reinforce?


My book Whatever Happened to Dinner includes  the recipe above, and a section on the values learned from community cooking (“Eat My Grits: Kitchen Culture Wars”). You can buy the book here.

Whatever Happened to Dinner?

Whatever Happened to Dinner?
Or get a FREE PDF Sampler here of 10 Easy Recipes.



From → Faith, Food, Recipes

  1. Where there’s smoke there’s fire – and sometimes barbecue. I like your recipe because of the amount of vinegar. I’m thinking about adapting it to pork ribs too, which I bought this morning at the farmers’ market.

    As you know, barbecue is big all over the South. Small towns in Georgia offer barbecue as Cliff discovered in Valdosta, GA at the Ole Country Buffet with pink neon signs flashing pig BBQ. I wrote a whimsical blog post about it sometime before I “knew” you online:

    I like cooking solo or “in community” as you mention, a phrase that evokes pleasant family dinner memories with lots of cooks in the kitchen.

    • I will check out your pig BBQ post–fun to know! Yes, this recipe is very adaptable for any kind of pork or poultry. I don’t use it on steak.

      My husband talks about how each pocket of the Shenandoah Valley has its own particular tweaks on the recipe–some adding lots of spice, others practically nil. He says “If you’re from Elkton, you don’t like the chicken from Bridgewater,” etc. In the days my dad made chicken bbq, he added no spice, not even pepper, and it was still delicious, at least in my memory! This post got so many comments on a Facebook group called “You Know from Rockingham County …” What fun. Thanks for adding to the fun here!

      • Athanasia permalink

        Melodie, I would say I agree with your father as re’ the simple way…I prefer the chicken just grilled or roasted. I don’t care for the BBQ sauces and rubs and such. If the chicken is good to begin with, why cover up the taste? Plus it is messy. We go to auctions all season long and there is always a chicken stand. Also bratwurst is very popular here due to the Germans. We have a lot of Polish too so, kielbasa. They try to make everyone happy.

      • Do you enjoy the bratwurst and kielbasa? Lots of folks here grill those too but I haven’t gotten into those. Thanks for your comments!

  2. I passed several chicken barbeque setups this morning and felt a little tug. Not enough to stop, but enough to put me in the mood for future Saturday mornings.

    If any of them had been Nelson’s Golden Glow, I would have come to a screeching halt!

    A tasty tradition almost everywhere I think. I have never helped make it, however. Thanks for the recipe. May try this one for Memorial Day weekend.

    • So, Nelson’s would have made you stop, eh! Spoken like a true Goshen resident for many years. The Nelson’s Golden Glow people are my mother’s cousins. 🙂 Stuart and I used to chatter about starting a valley franchise of Nelson’s. Even he as a Shen Valley native says Nelson’s is especially juicy–likely due to the special trailers/grills they cook it in. Thanks for the reminder!

      • Athanasia permalink

        I googled this Nelsons to see what it’s about and one of the links is a copy cat recipe on pinterest. I think they called it parking lot chicken, or some such. I did not actually read the link.

      • It might be called parking lot chicken because it is often sold in parking lots. It has become quite a catering business with a banquet hall. For others who may be interested here’s a good link: He also patented his system called Port-A-Pit®

        Nelson was my mother’s first cousin. I think. 🙂

  3. Doreen Davis permalink

    I was just describing this exact thing this past week to my co-workers! I didn’t know you were writing about i! 🙂

    • I’m so impressed this topic dug out a comment from one of my kids!! And how cool and timely to your discussion. Thanks for letting me know, dear. Come on down and enjoy some! Love, Mom

  4. Margaret Kauffman permalink

    My mind goes back to using a similar recipe to bar-be-que chicken for students at Clinton Chrsitian School in the 50’s in our back yard. Now I enjoy Nelsons Golden Glow when I go back to Indiana for our family reunion.

    • No doubt it was a variation of the Farm Bureau recipe too. So you barbecued for Clinton Christian! And yes, if we come in the summer, Mother usually makes sure we get Nelson’s Golden Glow for a meal! Always a treat for her too. (See my note to Shirley about our family connection there.)

  5. Pert Shetler permalink

    Please someone open a Nelson’s Golden Glow down here on the beach, near Myrtle Beach close to where we live!!! I will always remember that delicious smell and taste. My mouth is now watering.

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