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 partners 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.
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.”
In its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the Chicken Coop sold an average of 2,000 chicken halves a day.
4 to 8 servings
A staple at fundraising events by civic organizations and volunteer fire departments in the Finger Lakes area of New York as well as barbecue restaurants there, this chicken is a vinegar-based creation of a professor at Cornell University in the late 1940s. The basting sauce, mixed with eggs and cooking oil, creates a creamy texture and tangy flavor that mates beautifully with yard birds.
Here, the recipe is adapted for easy cooking, deploying the sauce as a marinade and using leg quarters for uniform cooking.
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 columnist Jim Shahin.
2 large eggs
1/2 cup canola oil (may substitute peanut oil)
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup store-bought or homemade poultry seasoning blend (see NOTE)
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt (optional)
1/2 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 1/4 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 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper in a small container.