Here is a link to my audio podcast “Nugget Man” on SoundCloud.
Recently, Ross and I mulled over ideas of where to take a much-needed one-week vacation.
In May, we’d been to London (U.K.) to visit my mum – a fantastic two weeks spent wandering, sleuthing and noshing our way around the wondrous city where I spent formative years. (See previous blogs for more.)
A week in Montreal at the jazz festival in June was another annual pilgrimage – and lots of fun including Green Beans with Almonds and Truffle Oil and other small delectable plates at my favourite eatery there: Pullman. (See an earlier blog for more.)
But neither was what you’d call an escape or a real rest.
So when the idea came up of going south to explore the Finger Lakes in New York State – a place neither of us had been – it felt right.
We searched online and read about the scenic beauty of the city of Ithaca and environs. “Ithaca is Gorges” is that region’s slogan, one that turns out to be absolutely apt.
Usually, I’m sceptical about hype aimed at tourists on an official web site but these words from such a source turned out to be true:
“It’s intense and laid-back and disdainful of convention. Ithaca is Ithaca. There’s a vibe here unlike anywhere else in America. And experiencing it is the only way to discover it.”
When I think of Ithaca now, two weeks after our seven-day stay, I remember huge lush trees, a vintage red-brick church steeple, rolling verdant hills and the edge of shimmering Cayuga Lake – all this being the stunning view from our ninth-floor room at the Statler Hotel.
The Statler is an amazing place and was our first happy experience of many on this working holiday. It’s a large, elegant but unpretentious hotel smack in the thick of Cornell University’s beautiful and big campus in downtown Ithaca. Notable at once, as we pulled up at the front door was something unusual and extremely pleasant: the fresh-faced, friendly young people who greeted us. This theme continued at registration and later as we nibbled away at the in-house restaurant Banfi’s pretty impeccable, bountiful Sunday brunch.
Explanation: The Statler is a training ground for students in Cornell’s well-known hospitality program. (See an upcoming blog for more.) Note to those in the hapless U.K. hotel/hospitality biz whose training seems to have been inspired by John Cleese’s hilarious TV show Fawlty Towers, please visit this place.
It was in the Statler Hotel’s gift shop the day after our arrival that we got chatting with its employee, Sue Coles. I mentioned that we were on a food-sleuthing adventure in Ithaca and that we had heard rumblings about something called “Cornell chicken.” Soon, in keeping with my many years of culinary adventures as a food sleuth, our conversation led to a trail of crumbs – or, in this case, feathers.
Sue, it turned out, goes to the same church as Jackie Baker, the widow of Dr. Robert Baker – yes, the same Dr. Robert Baker who invented Cornell Barbecue Chicken along with a whopping 50-plus chicken products. Most famously, he laid the groundwork for chicken nuggets and, most famously of all, the Chicken McNugget of fast food fame.
The next day, we arrived at Bakers Acres, the large family farm in nearby North Lansing that sells home-grown plants, shrubs and flowers, has a large cafe on-site and where Jackie lives in the lovely, sunny farmhouse where she and Robert raised six children. Their daughter Reenie Sandsted now operates the business. It was she who greeted us and led us to her mother.
Seated in an armchair opposite me, Jackie is 91 but does not look her age and shows few if any signs of the failing eyesight and hearing she told me about after our lively chat.
She was keen to talk about her beloved husband, who died in 2006, and especially his stellar accomplishments as a respected food scientist of long-standing at Cornell where, in 1970, he founded the university’s Institute of Food Science and Marketing.
“He’s remembered for his chicken nuggets,” Jackie began, citing her late hubby’s most well-known claim to fame, one that even inspired a humorous song dedicated to him called Nugget Man (see link below). “He developed them in the 1950s.”
Then she explained his motivation in creating them and so many other chicken products over a period of more than 50 years. “He wanted to develop a market to help poultry farmers.” And help them he did.
The chicken nugget began with devising a way to separate chicken meat from the bones. Dr. Baker did this by adapting a machine used for de-boning beef. “That was very important for new chicken products,” Jackie explained.
Reenie, who was sitting nearby as I wielded my microphone, chimed in at this point with a key nugget of information. “Dad developed the idea of holding meat together so nothing was wasted,” she explained.
Once a way was found to make breading stick to pieces of chicken, the chicken nugget was born. “Originally, it was thigh meat,” Jackie said, “but that’s changed over the years.” In the 1980s, McDonald’s adopted this idea to come up with their version: the Chicken McNugget.
Other products – more than 50 of them in all – soon followed. Dr. Baker, along with his team of graduate students and technicians, came up with inventions like chicken hot dogs, chicken bologna, chicken ham, chicken pastrami and ground chicken. His work also included items that incorporated turkey and eggs.
Then there’s Dr. B’s other big claim to fame and the one that sparked my original sleuthing about this man with a passion for poultry. It’s known in Ithaca – and widely eaten in much of New York State – as Cornell Barbecue Chicken.
It all started at Penn State University where Dr. Baker was a prof before his return to his alma mater, Cornell. “He was challenged by the Dean to cook for a visit by the Governor,” said Jackie. “It came before the chicken nuggets and got him recognition, support and the money to develop new products.”
The key to this barbecue chicken is the sauce used for basting along with a specially designed outdoor barbecue and double rack that made turning large numbers of halved chicken easy.
I saw all this in action a few days after my meeting with Jackie when Jeff Sandsted, her daughter Reenie’s husband and chicken chef par excellence, was doing his stuff at a charity barbecue in aid of the local seniors’ home in Lansing.
Jeff is an articulate, friendly fellow who takes his role as heir apparent to the Baker family’s barbecue chicken legacy seriously. It is he who takes charge of cooking chicken at such events, along with his 30-year-old son Travis.
Standing beside the portable grill he tows to cook-outs like this one, Jeff told me he’s barbecued “half to three-quarters of a million chickens” by this method. That includes his annual stint at Baker’s Chicken Coop: an eatery that’s been a popular feature at the late-August New York State Fair in Syracuse for 61 years. (Watch for a blog about this.)
When we arrived, Jeff had just barbecued 300 halved chickens, 150 at a time, on his nifty customized grill. “I built this stainless steel box with wheels and a hitch,” he began. “I can tow and drive it around.”
He uses charcoal and cooks the birds, basting with Dr. Baker’s famous sauce (recipe below) at intervals, for about 1 hour, 15 minutes over high heat. “The sauce isn’t a secret,” he told me. “It has an egg in it which keeps it emulsified.”
He speaks affectionately and admiringly of his late father-in-law. “He came up with more than 50 chicken products but there are other contributions you won’t hear about.” The reason, Jeff continued, was Dr. B’s personality. “He was a modest man who didn’t talk about himself very much. It’s phenomenal what he did for the poultry industry.”
He points out that Dr. Baker never patented anything or tried to make money from his work. “He was a kind man who loved to see people benefit from what he came up with.”
Dr. Baker’s grandson Michael Baker is a young newspaper journalist who is currently staying with his grandmother Jackie while researching a book about his famous grandfather.
Michael was just out of college when he got involved in the local food movement in Burlington, Vermont. “People were linking the chicken nugget and the obesity epidemic,” he told me recently by phone. It gave him the idea to “re-evaluate this and to begin a family journey” and to find out more about his grandfather’s work.
He names Dr. B’s key achievement. “He took chicken and distilled it to its most pliable form so it could be made into almost anything,” Michael said. Finding ways to use back, neck and skin – chicken parts that had previously been wasted, was another. “He was a child of the Great Depression and was very conscious of not wasting food.”
Most important, Dr. Baker wanted to “feed hungry people, help poultry farmers and give a wider variety of foods to people.”
The hard facts prove he succeeded. “In 1921, chicken consumption was 5 to 10 pounds of chicken per person per year,” Michael told me. “Now it’s a 80 to 90 pounds.” Those are U.S. stats. They’re likely similar in Canada.
In 1984, the New York Times cited Dr. Baker’s role in transforming the poultry industry thus: “Robert Baker is something of a chicken Edison.” And indeed, he spent most of his working life as a one-man whirlwind whose mission was to take chicken from its role as a pricey roast at Sunday dinner to a mainstream mainstay for regular folk.
Here’s his famous recipe:
Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce
This recipe appears in a vintage booklet handed to me by Baker’s widow Jackie. Its title: Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats. There are also detailed instructions with drawings showing how to create the Baker-designed barbecue designed for his cooking method. It can be accessed online here.
I have used this recipe with some success. However, the chicken that resulted was a pale imitation of the delectable birds cooked by Jeff Sandsted, Baker’s son-in-law, at a charity barbecue in North Lansing earlier this month. He admits the method works much better when grilling large quantities of chicken on the Baker-designed double grill. For the real thing, it’s worth visiting the New York State Fair held annually in Syracuse in late August where the family has operated an eatery called Baker’s Chicken Coop for more than 60 years. Here, it is known to many as “State Fair Chicken.”
This recipe makes enough basting sauce for 5 whole chickens but can be halved. Jeff insists that small chickens work best – 2 1/2-lb birds are ideal. The Baker method involves removing the back from each chicken (i.e. butterflying them), then splitting each chicken in half lengthwise.
Heat charcoal in barbecue until flames and smoke disappear but coals are still hot. Turn chicken with tongs about every 10 minutes, basting with each turn. Cook until wing separates easily and meat is cooked through, about 1 hour. You can douse flames which may flare up from dripping fat with a water bottle.
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups cider vinegar
3 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp pepper
In large bowl, whisk egg. Add oil; whisk again. Add remaining ingredients; whisk together until combined. Store leftover sauce in fridge.
Makes enough for 5 small chickens (10 halves).
Here is a link to an adorable humorous song dedicated to Dr. Robert Baker called Nugget Man.