Chicken for a cause

April 29, 2015



Chicken barbecues have been a favored way of raising money for assorted charitable causes for, I guess, as long as there have been chickens.

When I was a kid, and active in 4-H clubs, I got drafted on an annual basis by the county extension agent, who was the 4-H co-sponsor, to help with the annual American Cancer Society chicken barbecue. Half a chicken, beans, slaw, drink, five bucks, and we must have cooked what seemed like 2,000 chickens, because everyone in Benton County, Tennessee, ate chicken that day.

Mr. Moore had us trained. We’d lay out the cold, clammy chicken halves on 4 x 8 foot grates of expanded metal welded to re-bars on each end, with ends sticking out, on pits made of stacked concrete blocks donated by the lumberyard, over beds of smouldering charcoal. We’d mop the chickens down with a thin, vinegar-based barbecue sauce, using wooden-handled dish mops, carring sauce in stainless steel pitchers, squinting our eyes against the smoke.

Some of the older boys would come through periodically and turn the birds, laying another grate over the top of each section — there’d be probably 40 feet of the 8-foot-wide pit, or 10 grates’ worth of birds at a time — slapping lengths of pipe on the extensions on one side to hold the grates together, and using the other side to turn 50 or so chicken halves at a time. And we’d follow behind, mopping again.

Perched about 3 feet above a low bed of coals, it would take the chicken about 3-4 hours to cook. And when it was done every single morsel of that bird was permeated with smoke and soaked with sauce. As was I. Mama would make me undress in the basement, throw my clothes outside, and immediately hit the shower, which I was more than happy to do.

Last weekend, I got in on some of the same kind of work, some of the same kind of fundraising, when my church had its 51st annual chicken barbecue. Which means they were starting to barbecue chicken about the time I first got drafted to help with the Cancer Society barbecue back home. After half a century, and after tasting that barbecue, I can testify they are doing it right.

There are two secrets to good barbecued chicken: Low, slow cooking, and frequent basting with a vinegar-based sauce. The canonical Tennessee 4-H Club barbecue sauce is as follows:

  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp hot sauce
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder

I always up the garlic powder, and add a few other spices — a little dried oregano, some ancho chile powder, some paprika. But it’s the vinegar-oil-butter combo that’s key.

Chicken halves should cook at least three hours, depending on the heat of the fire, and maybe four, until a drumstick will easily twist loose. They need to be turned about every 30 minutes, and basted every time they’re turned. I find it easier to just put the sauce in a metal saucepan or bowl, and set it on the grill; it’s going to separate, and you can stir it up with the dish mop. There is no better chicken. No how, no way. The skin is crispy, the meat is moist and smoky. It’s heaven on the bone.

Many years after the annual cancer society barbecues had gone by the by, my father, God rest his soul, decided he wanted to start barbecuing. So he built a pit, a portable one (which is mine now, if I ever get around to retrieving it from up home), and commenced to barbecue pork shoulders, chicken halves, and the occasional slab or two of ribs. And they were all wonderful.

So it was with great delight that I pitched in to help with the church barbecue last weekend. The slaw is similar — vinegar-based, sweet, no mayo. The beans are — OK. The bread, sliced white Wonder bread. The desserts, a wide variety of cakes, pies, brownies and the like, were everything that pot-luck-dinner desserts ought to be. But the chicken smell  — the smoky, vinegary, spicy smell — and the chicken taste — that was the same.

It was like being back home. I highly recommend you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em, if there’s a chicken barbecue fundraiser in your past, try it for old times’ sake.




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