If you go “downy oshun” as folks say in these parts, across the Bay Bridge along Route 50 all the way to Ocean City or by way of Route 13 to the Delaware Beaches, you will pass farmland and marshland, small towns and no towns, vegetable stands and seafood shacks. You will also pass a number of roadside setups, some makeshift, some increasingly permanent, grilling heaps of chickens.
You’ll spy billowing smoke first, quickly followed by a sign announcing “Eastern Shore Barbecue Chicken”, proceeds to benefit the local Kiwanis Club, firehouse, or church. The smoke and vinegar aroma will penetrate your air-conditioned comfort next, so hold on to your brown paper bag of silver queen and tomatoes when Dad suddenly veers off the highway into a dusty parking lot.
Our Eastern Shore, historically a land of tomatoes, corn, oysters and blue crabs, is also a land of chicken. Over the past 50 years or so Delmarva has seen the rise of industrial poultry producers Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire. In June, Delaware Poultry Industry, Inc., the trade association for Delmarva’s chicken producers, will hold its 63rd annual Chicken Festival.
With so many birds at hand, it is certainly natural that a summertime tradition of barbecued poultry came to be. But, here’s the thing: “Eastern Shore” is a borrowed tradition. They raise chickens up North, too, you know.
The late Dr. Robert C. Baker, northerner, agricultural scientist, founder of Cornell University’s Institute of Food Science and Marketing, and the inventor of chicken nuggets as well as some 50 other chicken products, is the man behind the “Delmarvalous Barbecue Chicken” recipe on the Perdue website.
Frank Perdue, the farm boy from Salisbury who started with a small egg operation and ended with a multi-million dollar business, was both a friend and collaborator to Dr. Baker, implementing the processing equipment and techniques developed by Baker’s lab. The very same ingredients from “Delmarvalous” appear in Mrs. Perdue’s The Perdue Chicken Cookbook as “Firehouse Barbecue Sauce”, wherein Dr. Baker is credited.
Hired by the University in 1957 as an instructor and researcher, Dr. Baker was charged with acting as a “liaison to growers and marketers”, and it was one of his first promotional efforts that led him to barbecue martyrdom. At the time, chickens were primarily raised for their eggs and often were not slaughtered until at least four pounds of weight. Such birds were sold as fryers or roasters, purchased once a week by consumers for their Sunday dinner table. Dr. Baker sought to create a market for smaller birds, where poultry farmers would send birds to market sooner, therefore increasing turnover.
Smaller birds of about three pounds each became known as broilers, intended for the grill and basted with Baker’s sauce of oil, vinegar, seasonings and egg. As he says in his 1950 booklet, Barbecue Chicken and Other Meats, “Barbecued broilers without sauce are like bread without butter”. Hitting the road with his concoction, he visited every New York State County, demonstrating for civic and volunteer groups not only his grilling and basting techniques, but also how to build a grill in those pre-Weber days.
As such Dr. Baker took no umbrage with Perdue’s, or anyone else’s appropriation of his recipe and methods. His daughter Reenie told Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine in 2010: “Besides his children, I think the thing he was most proud of was being a faculty member at Cornell. He loved Cornell, that’s why he gave his sauce recipe to the university”.
Asked in 1998 by The Morning Call if he might have made lots of money from his innovations, he said, “Yeah, probably. But all the research we were doing was for the good of the industry, since I was in a state college. Our object for being there was to help the industry.”
It’s “Bob Baker’s Cornell Chicken” that is sold every year at Baker’s Chicken Coop, a permanent fixture at the New York State Fair and a summer gig for the Cornell scientist’s family for 60+ years. Beyond the Fair, along New York’s rural highways you’ll encounter either “Bob Baker’s”, “Cornell”, “State Fair”, or “Firehouse” chicken sizzling on roadside grills, some of which are fashioned after Dr. Baker’s homemade prototype.
Two bottled commercial products, “Salamida Original State Fair Famous Cornell Style Chicken BBQ Sauce” and “Chiavetta’s Barbeque Marinade”, both essentially Baker’s recipe, are for sale throughout New York.
Cornell Chicken’s popularity is proof of Baker’s marketing efforts, yes, but mostly it’s a testament to just how darn tasty the stuff is. Follow his counsel for grilling the bird over medium embers, not flame, turning and basting every five minutes or so, and you’ll be rewarded with smoke, tang, salt, slight charring, and succulent meat under crisp skin.
Though Delmarveans have claimed Baker’s recipe as their own, they have, at least, put their own spin on it by adding Old Bay, hot sauce and/or cayenne to the mix. (However, Perdue’s recipes do not.) And, the web-o-sphere abounds with other variations (see Preparation Notes, below).
Memorial Day weekend may still be 57 days away, but Baltimore’s Spring weather is fine and the trees are beyond bud, so scrape the grill clean and fire the charcoal. For summer we must wait, but for Eastern Shore Chicken, we do not.
Bob Baker’s Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce Recipe
(enough for 10 halves)
Brush it on the broiler halves every few minutes during cooking.
1 cup cooking oil
1 pint cider vinegar
3 tablespoons salt*
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
½ teaspoon pepper
Beat the egg, then add oil and beat again. Add other ingredients, then stir. The recipe can be varied to suit individual tastes. Leftover sauce can be stored in a glass jar and refrigerated for several weeks.
*Adjust the quantity or eliminate salt to meet individual taste. Chicken basted frequently during grilling will be saltier than lightly basted meat.
Per Dr. Baker, the smokiness imparted by a charcoal fire is part of the flavor equation, so you will not get the same results using a gas grill.
While Baker intended his sauce as a baster only, many cooks today like to divide the mix into two parts, using one half for marinating and the other for basting.
He also maintains that like beef, chicken benefits from aging. Fresh chickens, he said, are “tougher than hell” and ideally, a bird should spend about seven days in a package before cooking. (The Morning Call)
In New York, the typical sides for Cornell Chicken are salt potatoes – peeled, boiled potatoes loaded with melted butter and salt – and baked beans. For a very easy-to-pull-together supper I recommend roasted potatoes and a simple green salad.
I like to amp up the capsicum by increasing the black pepper to several healthy grinds from the mill, adding a generous pinch of cayenne, and a few hefty dashes of Texas Pete.
I beat the egg and oil together until emulsified before adding the other ingredients.
Olive oil is a flavorful and healthful option for the “cooking oil”.
Cook’s Country adds fresh herbs to the basting sauce, and replaces the egg, which acts as a binder in the marinade and provides a nice coating on the meat when grilling and basting, with mustard.
Some cooks prefer to grill a butterflied whole chicken in lieu of a half bird, as Dr. Baker did, while others grill selected parts (as I do).