Hot summer days — swimming, picnics and fireworks — are my memories of the Fourth of July when growing up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. And the picnics often included a unique style of BBQ chicken found only in that part of Virginia. But it is by far the best BBQ chicken I’ve ever eaten.
Shenandoah Valley — Virginia-Style BBQ Chicken
This BBQ chicken is really an oil and vinegar-salt brine-type sauce. The chicken is cooked slowly over a charcoal pit for several hours. The marinate is doused on the chicken pieces periodically while they are cooked. The chicken quarters are cooked by service groups – such as church groups, VFW Halls, JC, Rotary, Ruritan Clubs – and sold as fundraisers on Saturdays. We’d eagerly search the newspaper for the ads showing the next Chicken BBQ and get there early to purchase plates — as the fundraisers always run out of food.
1950’s Origins; Today’s Sustainable Agriculture
These BBQs date back to the 1950’s when rural Agricultural Cooperative Extension Agencies were trying to find ways to help the local economy and farmers market their chicken industry. They developed the method, recipes and instructions for these community BBQs. My father — never to throw anything away — helped with the early Ruritan Club BBQ’s in Bridgewater, VA, and saved the instructional materials. The chicken BBQs caught on and are in full-swing in the summertime in the valley. Now this practice is called “sustainable agriculture”.
The recipe was actually developed by Cornell University and the sauce is named after this. Locally, a Facebook site of “Remembering Harrisonburg, VA” had a series of posts about the BBQ chicken in March 2015. David Shirkey’s recipe (from Dayton, Virginia) is often sited as the original recipe. Here is one of the posts giving the recipe. A granddaughter of Shirkey, Angela Evans Andrews, said he was always tickled when the recipe was shared and “shared if freely”.
From Helen Purcell: David Shirkey’s Recipe in the Daily News Record: 1 c peanut oil. 2 cups apple cider vinegar. 4 tbsp salt. 1 tsp pepper. 2 tsp poultry seasoning. 1 tsp garlic salt. 1 tbsp lemon juice. Mix all sauce ingredients. Before cooking chicken, generously slather it with sauce. Prepare charcoal, using about one lb. for every half. Cook chicken about 24 inches from the coals for about two hours. Rotate chicken every 1/2 hour or so and reapply sauce when you rotate. Chicken is done when the leg and wing easily rotate on the bone. After chicken is done, put in a closed container with the remaining sauce and let it sit for at least a half an hour. Recipe makes 10 chicken halves.
Cooking the BBQ Chicken
Shirkey’s recipe is essential the same as my father’s with only a few minor differences. When the service groups cook the chicken, it is cooked over a BBQ pit in large quantities (probably 200 chicken halves). This is a little daunting for one household, so Shirkey reduced the quantity for 10 chicken halves.
I’ve reduced the recipe for five quarters. I like to use leg quarters as they are not as dry as breast quarters. Additionally, I’m not crazy about heating up a charcoal grill in 90 degree weather in Louisiana in the summertime. So I cooked this chicken in the oven. It turned out great. You’ll notice the recipe has alot of salt. This is actually a brine-type of marinade. If you absolutely don’t like this much salt, reduce it to 1 tsp. Also, I don’t set the cooked chicken back in the marinade as instructed in the David Shirkey recipe since I initially coat the raw chicken in the marinade. Can’t go for cross-contamination.
Shenandoah Valley Barbecue Chicken from Lowell Heisey
- 5 chicken leg quarters, cleaned, trimmed of excess fat and dried
- 1/4 pint (1/2 cup) peanut oil
- 1/2 pint (1 cup) vinegar
- 5 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp. poultry seasoning
- 1/4 tsp garlic salt
Method and Steps
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Oil bottom of casserole dish or baking pan large enough to hold the 5 chicken quarters.
- In large ziplock bag or large bowl combine the peanut oil, vinegar, salt, black pepper, poultry seasoning and garlic salt. Stir to combine.
- Add the chicken pieces to the ziplock bag or bowl and thoroughly coat.
- Remove the chicken from the marinade and arrange the chicken in the casserole dish.
- Bake the chicken in the oven, uncovered, for about 1 1/2 hours. Douse the chicken with more of the marinade using a pastry brush or baster about every 15 minutes.
- The chicken is done when the leg and thigh pieces rotate easily on the bone.
No Fourth of July would be complete without fireworks. The best firework display I’ve seen was in Washington D.C. While in college one summer, I worked close to Washington, D.C. We went into the city that afternoon and sat on the grounds just below where the fireworks were set off close to the Washington Memorial. It was an incredible display. I remember the Beach Boys gave a concert that evening.
Locally, the city hosts a fireworks display along the Mississippi River. The fireworks are set off from a barge which floats in the river so the display can be seen up and down the river. Here’s one of the fireworks from 2011 with the Mississippi River in the foreground.
Fourth of July
This year have a safe Fourth of July as we celebrate our Independence Day. We are lucky people to live where we live. Let’s be thankful.