How to Barbecue Chicken: Shenandoah Valley Chicken BBQ
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
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.