The grilled-chicken recipe so brilliant it’s got an Ivy League name


Cornell Chicken

Jennifer Chase, The Washington Post.

Cornell Chicken

By Jim Shahin, Special to The Washington Post

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 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, New York, 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.



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