As long as she can remember, for the same two weeks every summer, 62-year-old Reenie Baker Sandsted has been in the same place: Baker's Chicken Coop at the New York State Fair.
"It has always been a part my life," Sandsted says, taking a break from behind the counter one day in late August to sit at one of the picnic tables and visit with me.
By "always," she means always.
Before she was even working at the stand, Sandsted and her five siblings were invested in the business. "Our parents made us partner when we were born," Sandsted says. "It helped put us through college."
The Chicken Coop is a state fair landmark, attracting governors, Cornell University presidents and even Bill and Hillary Clinton. That's because of the chicken recipe and cooking method developed by Sandsted's father, the late Robert C. Baker, called Cornell Chicken.
Broiler halves are basted with a vinegar and egg sauce as they're grilled over a charcoal fire. The chicken is turned frequently and sauced regularly, until it achieves a blackened, crispy skin and the juicy meat explodes with creamy, tart flavor.
Baker developed the recipe and technique for cooking it in the 1940s, while at Pennsylvania State University. "He created it for the governor, who was visiting the school," Sandsted says.
Later, he moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he joined the faculty as a professor of poultry and food sciences. In 1949, he set up Baker's Chicken Coop at the fair. The following year, the Cornell Cooperative Extension published his recipe and method, including highly detailed instructions for building a cinder-block pit (or "fireplace") and constructing metal turning racks. The resulting contribution to the annals of barbecue would be forever associated with Baker and the school.
Baker's goal was to help promote the poultry industry, which, at the time, lagged far behind beef and pork in sales. At first, Baker smoked the chickens in a hole in the ground, as at a pig roast. Before long, he decided it would be easier to cook aboveground, and he constructed metal racks to turn 25 half-chickens at a time.
The emulsion of vinegar, oil and eggs helps the chicken to crisp without burning as rapidly as it does with a red barbecue sauce, which, unlike the Cornell sauce, contains sugar. Equally important is the method. "No wood," says Travis Sandsted, 36, Reenie's son. "Charcoal. Wood gives it too much of a smoke flavor."
Travis, who oversees the cooking, started apprenticing with Baker, his grandfather, at the Chicken Coop when he was 19. He has been here ever since.
The pit is about 30 feet long, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Travis dumps eight bags of Kingsford charcoal to start and adds five more bags every hour. The fire runs hot, about 1,000 degrees.
He puts unseasoned chicken halves skin side up in metal racks and turns them after a few minutes, when they begin to bronze. Using a long-handled barbecue mop, Travis then liberally sauces the birds. He flips them frequently to cook evenly, basting nearly every time to deepen the flavor. All the while, he tosses water on flare-ups. It takes about an hour for the chicken to finish.
Like his grandfather before him, Travis doesn't marinate. "We just brush it on," he says.
In its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, the Chicken Coop sold an average of 2,000 chicken halves a day. The fair has grown a lot since then, and visitors are tempted by countless options, so these days the Coop serves about 1,000 chicken halves a day.
Although the fair, which runs the last week of August and the first week of September, is over, Cornell Chicken can be sampled throughout Upstate New York, where it has become part of the culinary landscape. Schools, volunteer fire departments and civic organizations commonly make Cornell Chicken for fundraisers.
Barbecue joints throughout the undulating region sell it, too. One measure of the depth of the dish's reach is, paradoxically, the citizenry's offhand near-obliviousness to its origin. "Younger generations of Finger Lake residents don't even recognize this as a regional specialty so much as the default way to cook chicken outdoors," wrote Sarah Laskow for the website Atlas Obscura.
She's right. I ate at a number of barbecue places where the proprietor insisted that the recipe was handed down from family members.
"It probably has been," Reenie Baker Sandsted told me. "They probably grew up eating it at home and think it is something their dad or mom created."
To be sure, like any recipe, Cornell Chicken is modified slightly by its maker. One cook might add a touch more thyme, another more marjoram. But common to all is the vinegar, oil, egg emulsion.
It's easy to make at home. Travis, though, maintains that it won't turn out quite the same because the home cook doesn't have the wire-mesh rack for ease of turning the chicken, the same distance from the coals or the same level of heat. He's right. I've made it a few times. My version isn't quite as tangy and the skin isn't quite as crisp, but in the same way that my bucatini all'Amatriciana is pretty close to, but isn't a dead ringer for, Mario Batali's version — even using his recipe — I think my Cornell Chicken does its maker proud.
Baker is also credited with inventing chicken bologna, chicken hot dogs and, notably, chicken nuggets. But Cornell Chicken may be his most appreciated legacy, at least in Upstate New York.
He died in 2006, but the Chicken Coop remains a family affair. The operation is reaching into its fourth generation. Travis's 6-year-old son, Mason, helps make the sauce. "He already cracks eggs one-handed," Travis says proudly.
Sandsted's two sisters also work at the Chicken Coop. And her daughter, Sarah, returns each year from Haiti, where she works for an organization that makes shoes from rubber, to spend her two-week vacation at the business.
"The smell of the chicken is like time travel," Sarah says. "It reminds me of growing up in Upstate New York."
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join today's Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com . Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.
4 to 8 servings
You'll need an instant-read thermometer.
MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours.
From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.
2 large eggs
½ cup canola oil (may substitute peanut oil)
⅔ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup store-bought or homemade poultry seasoning blend (see NOTE)
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt (optional)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)
4 chicken leg quarters (drumstick plus thigh)
Beat the eggs in medium bowl until blended, then whisk in the oil in a slow, steady stream, to form a thickened mixture. Whisk in the vinegar, then the poultry seasoning; if you are using a store-bought seasoning blend, add the optional salt and pepper.
Pour into a gallon zip-top bag, then add the chicken quarters and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage the pieces through the bag; refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours.
Transfer the bag of chicken and marinade to the counter; let it sit at room temperature for about one hour before grilling.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high (450 to 500 degrees). Once the grill is preheated (about 10 minutes), reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the coals are ready, distribute them to one side of the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Place the chicken quarters skin sides up on the indirect-heat side of the grill; discard the marinade. Close the grill lid and open its vents halfway. Cook for about 40 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees, turning the chicken as needed. For crispy skin and a little char, move the chicken, skin side down, directly over the coals for the last 3 to 5 minutes before removing it from the grill.
NOTE: To make ¼ cup of your own poultry seasoning blend, stir together 2 tablespoons fine kosher salt, 1 tablespoon ground sage, 1 tablespoon dried marjoram, 1 tablespoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper in a small container.
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