Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!

A long-standing summer tradition in upstate New York – and Columbia County, in particular – is the chicken barbecue.

Usually, these events are held with the dual purpose of bringing people together and raising money for some cause or another. It seems no matter which one you attend, the food tastes exactly the same. The menu doesn’t change.

And that’s what is so great about it.

Feed yourself and your family for less than it costs to dine at a fast-casual restaurant, and help raise money for the firehouse, church, youth sports team, your favorite political party, etc. in the process? I don’t see a downside to such an arrangement.

Not long ago, I attended a chicken barbecue at our local firehouse. When it was time to sit down and eat, I found myself at a table with a few transplants to the area, who were not familiar with the community chicken barbecue concept. I took a few minutes to explain to them the essential parts of every event, which are as follows:

1) Chicken. Naturally. Always on the bone, split in half or quartered. Cooked – usually by men – over an open fire that generates a lot of billowing smoke. I imagine they put some sort of seasoning on it. While I’ve never seen a blend in the store labeled “local chicken barbecue,” somehow it always tastes roughly the same. Delicious is how it tastes – for the record.

2) Baked potato. Wrapped in foil. Cooked perfectly every time, even though the potatoes are not all the same size. What is the secret? It must be the foil, because this isn’t how it works in my oven, but I don’t wrap in foil.

3) Corn. The barbecue that I attended strayed a bit from this tradition and did not have corn on the cob. But they did have cornbread, so the corn was still represented – albeit in a more deconstructed form.

4) The dessert table. This is sometimes an add-on, with proceeds from sales further supporting the cause du jour. Desserts should be local and need to at least look homemade. There really ought to be pie. There are almost always brownies and cookies in a sandwich bag. Bonus points if the maker or seller of the desserts reminds you of your grandmother, which induces you to buy extra.

5) Iced tea. Unsweetened, dispensed from some sort of a cooler with a spigot. Usually it will have lemons floating in it. When I was a kid, this was always dispensed into styrofoam cups. I’m glad to see these days most places are using paper.

6) Folding metal chairs. There’s nothing fancy about a chicken barbecue, and that’s part of the appeal. The seating is metal chairs of the folding variety, and if you’re not eating your chicken at an actual firehouse, there’s a good chance that at the very least your chairs were borrowed from one.

There you have it, the essential pieces of the upstate chicken barbecue. I don’t know who came up with the concept, but it’s a good one and summers are better because of it.

I’ve already got my tickets to the next barbecue. Do you?

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