By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
In 1949, a professor of poultry science at Cornell set up a food stand at the New York State Fair, in Syracuse, and changed the region’s culinary horizons forever. Dr. Robert Baker’s barbecued chicken, with its tomato-free, vinegar-based sauce enriched with eggs, was so popular that to this day it virtually defines summertime in Tioga and the surrounding counties. From April to November, if you drive north on Route 96 from Owego with your windows down, you’ll find the air streaked with currents of hardwood smoke and sizzling poultry. The savory scent, which is both sharply tangy and deliciously rich, comes wafting out of tents pitched beside firehouses, portable rotisseries set up by the roadside, and ad hoc backyard cafés.
“It’s your basic Cornell chicken,” says Phil Card, who opened Phil’s Chicken House, a wood-paneled restaurant decorated to the ceiling with folksy knickknacks (souvenir plates, angel statuettes, lighthouse miniatures), 38 years ago. And it is extraordinary chicken, glazed gold and haloed with the nose-tickling aroma of its sauce. The glaze is a salty punch in a plush glove, its potency a brazen contrast to tender breast meat and thighs. The wings, which carry maximum marinade, are resounding. How his chicken gets so good is no secret.
“We baste our chickens on the rotisserie every seven to ten minutes for two hours,” Card explains. Although the technique has made his restaurant a thriving business for decades, he is not entirely happy with its success. “We can never franchise this,” he laments. “You can’t do it on a timer. The chickens are different sizes, the rotisserie runs hotter some days—you need a cook who knows how to look at chicken and knows when and how to baste it. Years ago, the Boston Market people came here to learn, but they walked out in frustration. ‘You’re too complicated for us,’ they told me.”
We never realized just how much work it is to grill Cornell chickens until we watched Jim Kurtz as he was preparing for the midday crowd at his alfresco eatery, Jim’s B-B-Q Chicken, in the town of Candor. Out behind the tables, Kurtz wields an ax to make a pile of hardwood for the fire he starts in a cinder-block pit every morning at six. Three hours later, the wood has burned down enough so that he can begin cooking. By eleven, there are several dozen nearly ready half chickens on the grill, and in between getting the macaroni salad, potato salad, and coleslaw ready (and the weekend-only salt-roasted potatoes, another local passion), Kurtz is at the grate approximately every five minutes using a broad paintbrush to saturate the chickens with his sauce.
Kurtz believes that the key to excellent grilled chicken is at least as much the heat source as the Cornell-style sauce. “You don’t want to be tasting charcoal,” he says. “You need hardwood—oak or cherry or hickory—and you must let it burn way down before you do any cooking. Then you put that chicken on the heat for a good two hours if you want it tender.”
Kurtz started his place eight years ago as a weekend hobby. Although it is now open five days a week, it still seems more like a picnic than a restaurant experience. You place your order in a small house trailer, the dining area is a cluster of covered wooden tables on a gravel patio in the yard, and country music plays from a radio located somewhere above the trio of household refrigerators in which Kurtz keeps extra salads. The accommodations, though informal, are meticulous. Every wooden table has matching salt and pepper shakers, a supply of toothpicks, a stock of moist towelettes, and a glass jar of cellophane-wrapped red and green mints for after-chicken refreshment.
One of the simplest but most alluring sources of Cornell chicken along Route 96 is Campoli’s BBQ—the split-drum open cooker maintained by grill man Jim Campoli in the parking lot of Metro’s Restaurant, north of Owego, every Saturday from May to September. There is no dining room; customers carry their half chickens, buttered salt-roasted potatoes, and bacon brown-sugar beans to one of the tables at the miniature golf course next to the parking lot.
Campoli uses a long-handled sponge mop to press vast amounts of Salamida’s State Fair sauce onto the grilling chicken. As the juices drip down onto the coals, the air fills with aromatic smoke. Alternately basting and rearranging the birds on the grate, Campoli gave us his theory on the Cornell chicken recipe. “When our body gets thirsty, we need to drink. So it is with chicken. When it cooks over coals, it needs marinade. It’s thirsty chicken, and it’ll drink all the marinade you can give it. Then, when you eat it, the meat gives back the flavor.”
Jim’s B-B-Q Chicken (permanently closed)
20 Foundry Street,
Campoli’s BBQ (permanently closed)