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Why All of Upstate New York Grew Up Eating the Same Barbecue Chicken

Robert C. Baker is one of the people you can thank for the popularity of chicken in America as opposed to beef and pork. Baker was an agricultural extension specialist and a professor at Cornell University. In 1950, he published a revolutionary recipe in the publication Cornell Cooperative Extension Information Bulletin 862, which became ubiquitous in upstate New York. It was simply a barbecue sauce, but it was one that people loved. And that was only the beginning. Baker also taught New York residents how to build a barbecue pit, how to scale up chicken recipes to feed crowds, and what to serve with it.   

“My father was quite a promoter,” says Dale Baker, the eldest of Baker’s six children. “He would have me and others go out in high school and cook for groups.” Roy Curtiss, who worked with Baker as a Cornell undergraduate, remembers killing and butchering chickens in the basement of Rice Hall, on campus, freezing them, and using them all summer long to create barbecues for 50 to 100 people.

“We’d charge them a buck and half, for a roll, an ear of corn, and half a chicken,” Curtiss says. All summer, they set up for church groups and farm bureaus, toting collapsible grates in the back of a pickup truck, all around the Ithaca area. “It was very popular,” he says. “People would hear about this, and think it was a great alternative to hamburgers and hot dogs.”

Baker later came up with another novel idea: the chicken nugget. Read about his poultry cooking innovations and get the recipe at Atlas Obscura.

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