Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Church (Cornell) Chicken: Brooks BBQ

We don't have many true culinary traditions here in Upstate NY, but we do have some. Eating grilled "Cornell Chicken" at your local church barbecue is one of them.

I start salivating every time I drive by a church signboard advertising a chicken BBQ. I have since childhood. I nearly lose my mind when I drive by a church and see (smell) this...

If you aren't from around here I guess I should explain a couple of things before I go on...

First of all, a note on Cornell Chicken. This recipe was developed by the late Professor Robert C. Baker (also the inventor of the chicken nugget), Professor of Poultry Science and Food Science at Cornell University. The recipe is as follows.

Recipe for Barbeque Sauce (enough for 10 halves): 

1 cup cooking oil 
1 pint cider vinegar 
3 tablespoons salt 
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning 
1/2 teaspoon pepper 
1 egg 

Beat the egg, then add the oil and beat again. Add other ingredients and stir. The recipe can be varied to suit individual tastes. 

Chicken halves marinated/basted in a variant of this sauce are fairly ubiquitous at church chicken barbecues. The outfits that cater these events generally have their own secret recipe for their particular sauce. But they are all basically variants of the above Cornell Chicken recipe. Brooks BBQ out of Oneonta is the most common caterer in the Capital Region (you might also see Giffy's).

Secondly, a note on the use of the term "BBQ" or "Barbecue." Folks, the term "BBQ/Barbecue" has been attested as meaning, "a social gathering with food cooked over an open heat source" since the 17th century... It's use is not solely limited to southern style BBQ. If you argue this point and get bunched up about Brooks' or Giffy's using the term then you are a pedant. A dirty, stinky, annoying pedant.

I would argue that Cornell chicken served at church/community barbecues and grilled on grates over charcoal is our own "Upstate New York vernacular BBQ." It has its own history, traditions, and recipes that have persisted over time. It is ours. We should embrace and be proud of it.

Moving on. I took the entire family over to the Methodist church in McKownville the other weekend for some Brooks' chicken.

I lived for most of my childhood in McKownville so this is my home base for church chicken.

Everyone should "Eat In" at least once in your life. This is where you will soak up the true experience of a chicken BBQ. The whole process makes me happy. It hasn't change much in my lifetime. The fact that they now accept debit cards seems a revolutionary development...

You start off by taking a looksy at the menu.

Then you buy your tickets.

Next you walk over to the seating area which will contain charmingly set clothed tables. You grab a tray and get your drinks. Water, apple juice, tomato juice, or coffee. It is always water, apple juice, tomato juice, or coffee... Then you choose some cake and go sit down. The nice folks at the church will bring you your chicken.

My son started his meal with an appetizer of cake...

You know what makes me smile more than almost anything? A church BBQ "relish tray," that's what. Just look at it. Look! There is nothing in the world more charming then a relish tray at a church chicken BBQ.

Then your chicken arrives. And your potato.

I love Brooks' chicken. Tender, flavorful, crisp... At least it is always crisp when you go to the actual Brooks' location in Oneonta. At church events we must make some allowances as sometimes the chicken has been held for a bit after coming off of the grill. But didn't I tell you folks? This is about the experience as much as it is about the chicken...

You sit there in that church with your family and your fellow countrymen and munch your chicken bones clean. There is something very peaceful and serene about the whole process. I can't explain it. It is a thing that must be experienced for one's self.

Something that troubled me during my visit was the average age of the fellow chicken enthusiasts seated around me. It was an aged crowd. Other than my own, I don't think there were any young families. This made me sad. I think the lugubrious pace of "eating in" at these events is too much for the frenetic members of my generation... The staid traditions may seem too "hokey" for many.

This is madness. If you drive by a sign in your community advertising a chicken BBQ, you better go. Don't grab a takeout chicken. You stay right there and "eat in." While eating tell your children, "someday you will bring your children here."

We cannot afford to let things like this fade from the world.  The world has already moved on from so many things...


  1. When Brooks' set up at Pineview on Wash Ave Ext - it's in the air from lunchtime on - - and I haven't seen a relish tray anywhere in years - may have to keep my out for your locaitoin

  2. Another great post. Your blog has been my favorite read on the internet for a while now. Peace and love.


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