The Baste of Summertime

Turning onto Freeville’s Main Street, I could smell my destination before I saw it. When I arrived at the parking lot of the First United Methodist Church, a familiar scene – the raised pit chicken barbecue – greeted me.

On this chilly spring morning, pungent smoke rose high above a vented, tin-roofed shelter, draped on one side with a large blue tarp that had been rigged to create a barrier against the cold, damp wind. Beneath the metal covering, four men were tending 200 chicken halves. Heavy gauge wire racks holding the poultry were situated over a rectangle of ground covered with white-hot charcoal. It was rimmed by a 3-foot-high surround of metal enclosed by a concrete block wall – not an elegant grill design but highly effective for the job.

The halves are flipped every 15 minutes or so. The men accomplish this by putting a second rack on top of the birds, then lifting and flipping the 50 pounds of sandwiched meat in one swift movement. When the rotation is completed, the men slather each half with a savory barbecue sauce. All of this – sauce, racks, and raised pits – are the innovations of one man, Bob Baker, who believed a cooked chicken could go beyond the pot or pan that held it.

A Chicken Visionary
It’s hard to imagine a time when this barbecue ritual didn’t exist. Yet until the late 1940s, most Americans ate their chicken roasted or stewed, sometimes fried. Then in the heady, inventive years following World War II, a quiet culinary revolution took hold, led by agricultural scientist Dr. Robert C. Baker, a lifelong resident of the Finger Lakes Region. A 1984 article in The New York Times called him “something of a chicken Edison” for his development of new products and technologies that transformed the business and consumption of poultry.

Born in Newark in 1921, Robert Carl Baker was raised on a small fruit farm near Sodus. He developed an interest in apples and in 1943 graduated with an undergraduate degree in pomology from Cornell University. After earning a master’s in marketing from Penn State, he returned to Cornell in 1948 in the Cooperative Extension program. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1957 as a professor of food science and poultry science upon completing his doctorate from Purdue.

In 1970, Baker was a founding member and the first director of Cornell’s Institute of Food Science and Marketing. By his retirement in 1989, he would be credited with development of more than 50 chicken products. But for most residents in this region, Bob Baker is best remembered as the man who gave us the raised-pit chicken barbecue, plus the sauce to go with it.

Known as Cornell barbecue sauce, the mixture was actually developed while Baker was a graduate student in Pennsylvania. According to his daughter, Reenie Baker-Sandsted, Penn State administrators challenged the poultry science department to come up with a special dish to serve the governor when he visited the campus.

Taking up the challenge, Baker created a sauce and a grilling process that allowed for the slow cooking of large quantities of chicken outdoors. To make this method work, Baker had to create a basting mixture that didn’t burn and blacken the outside of the chicken before the inside meat was done. As a result, he steered away from conventional, tomato-based sauces, and developed his unique oil, egg and cider vinegar recipe.

While the barbecue sauce presented a chemistry challenge, the cooking process presented a physical one. When he pioneered his grilling technique, Baker literally did it on his knees. Reenie said, “They’d dig a trench and put charcoal on the bottom of it. Then they’d put the racks over the top of the pit to cook the chicken. This meant every 15 minutes or so, the guys would be kneeling to flip 60-pound racks and baste the chicken. It didn’t take long before they came up with the raised-pit idea.”

All’s Fair in the Family
Although Baker’s barbecue was a success at Penn State, it wasn’t until he returned to Cornell in 1948 that his sauce and cooking method gained appreciation and widespread attention. The recognition didn’t come overnight. Chicken had been stereotyped. It needed a spokesperson to convince the public it was more than a pretty broiler at the Sunday dinner table. So that’s what Baker set out to do, not because he was interested in being the Julia Child of chickendom; his goal was to widen consumer demand for poultry products to improve the farmer’s profit. His focus never wavered.

One marketing strategy Baker used was to visit every county in New York State promoting his sauce and grilling technique. He did presentations and demonstrations for civic and volunteer groups of every stripe, advancing this new take on an old food. In 1949, as part of his awareness campaign, he formed a partnership to open a food concession at the New York State Fair. Baker’s Chicken Coop served chicken cooked the Baker way to thousands of people, winning adherents eager to tell others of their culinary conversion. It worked.

While the stand was wildly popular with fairgoers, it didn’t fly as a high-yield investment. Baker’s partners soon dropped out, but his family dropped in, starting with his wife, Jacoba, who joined him in managing the business, and stayed with it for 40 years. Staffing the operation soon became a family affair that included the Baker’s six children and eventually their grandchildren. Today, Reenie manages Baker’s Chicken Coop. After sixty consecutive summers, it’s a New York State Fair landmark.

A Gentleman and a Scholar
Baker never rested on his barbecue laurels. He went on to develop chicken bologna, chicken franks, chicken chili and – move over Ronald McDonald – chicken nuggets, and the list goes on. By the time he died of a heart attack in 2006, his work with foods and farmers had taken him around the world and garnered him numerous accolades and honors including induction into the American Poultry Hall of Fame.

Yet, Bob Baker remained a modest man who felt he’d been blessed to do work he loved. Reenie told me, “If you asked him, he’d tell you his greatest accomplishment was marrying my mother and raising a family. He was like that, very humble. Besides his children, I think the thing he was most proud of was being a faculty member at Cornell. He loved Cornell, that’s why he gave his sauce recipe to the university.”

In his New York Times obituary, Baker was quoted from an earlier interview in which he commented on his childhood experiences with chickens: “Some people say the flavor used to be better. I grew up on a farm. We’d chop the head off the chicken, and it would bounce around the yard and lay there for a while before we picked it up; then we’d scoop it into a pail and it would lie in the house a bit before my mother would get around to cooking it. Probably it did taste different. But do you want to put up with that to get the taste?”

Thank goodness Bob Baker didn’t want to put up with that, and devoted himself to doing something about it.


by Jan Bridgeford-Smith