Justin Koshar, of Linkwood-Salem Volunteer Fire Company, bastes cooking chicken with barbecue sauce while getting relief from the heat only from a fan positioned nearby. (Photo by Debra R. Messick)

No sooner do the words “Eastern Shore-style barbecue chicken” leave your lips and you’re sure to be licking them in anticipation.
It’s one of those iconic food items that fills much more than the belly, a downhome feast downright capable of magically transporting you back to a simpler time with a single bite.
Serving it up at backyard cookouts is one way of conjuring up tasty recollections of summer.
But for many, the way to truly attain this gastro-nirvana is to follow the billowing smoke and wafting aroma emanating from the chicken barbecue grill pits along Rt. 50 as well as numerous firehouses, churches and Lions’ Club locations.
For these organizations, the barbecue chicken fundraiser has become a staple for feeding the coffers, which provide their good works throughout the year.
For those traveling to the beach, the scent of succulently seared chicken beckons like an olfactory beacon, reassuring all doubters that some things are still just as good as they remembered.
At the grill pit in front of the Linkwood-Salem Volunteer Fire Company, on Rt. 50 between Cambridge and Vienna, those sights and smells have tempted weekend vacationers and locals alike (who phone ahead their orders regularly), one beach traffic heavy Friday a month from May to September, for almost 50 years. (Remaining summer dates this season are: July 13, Aug. 10, Aug. 31 and Sept. 21).
The company’s Hot & Tangy BBQ Chicken tradition began in 1969.
The Tall Cedars of Lebanon’s Cambridge chapter shared the highly coveted sauce recipe, still used today, and available via purchase of the Fire Company’s Bright Red bound “Turnin’ Up the Heat” cookbook collection.
Key ingredients include eggs, poultry seasoning, oil, apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Before being slathered with sauce, roughly 900 to 1,000 half chickens are first par boiled in water and apple cider vinegar for 20 to 30 minutes.
Then, after marinating for at least two hours, the birds are browned to char-broiled perfection on an open-flame grill.
While the original apparatus required almost Olympic feats of hand-lifting and turning of the loaded grill slats, two newer grills simplify the process considerably.
Overall, though, plenty of teamwork is still required to ensure the smooth running of the monthly event, according to Kathy Adkins, barbecue committee chairwoman for the past six years who has been part of it for about 30 years.
“It takes the whole fire company to do this, not just one committee,” Adkins said. Those not prepping chicken or grilling are busy readying side orders of homemade macaroni salad and baked beans — later in the season, freshly harvested and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, she added. “We start Thursday evening, then fire up the grill 7 a.m. Friday morning so the chicken will be ready when sales open at 10 a.m., continuing until sold out.”
Adkins’ dad, Jerry Willey, served as tour guide to BBQ prep operations inside the kitchen, where at least four huge vats were continually boiling under the watchful eyes of 15-year BBQ veterans Charlie Turner and Bobby Willey.
“We cooked 200 chickens last night and soaked them in sauce overnight; we always make a double batch,” Jerry Willey said, while proudly pointing out his teenaged great granddaughter now on duty in the kitchen, the fourth generation of his family involved.
The barbecue customers also span the generations, Adkins said.
“Many people on the way to the beach tell us they used to stop for the chicken when traveling with parents and even grandparents. Some say they plan their trips to the beach around our BBQ dates!” she said.
Proceeds from the event are key to providing equipment, helping protect the surrounding communities. During earlier years (the station was founded in 1957, in response to several local fires, one involving loss of life) team members depended on donations of trucks and pumpers dating as far back as the 1930s, and on their own formidable skills in basically constructing their own machines.
They’ve come a long way since then, and since 1984, when Jerry Willey helped drive back the company’s first factory-ordered truck all the way from Kansas City.
The Chestertown Lions Club pioneered big barbecue chicken events in their area 50 years ago; for a time it was their biggest fundraiser. The club’s sauce recipe, still a closely guarded secret, hasn’t changed over the years.
“I don’t even know what it is, and I help make it, along with three or four other guys” laughed Ken Roderick, the club’s Melvin Jones Secretary (named in honor of the group’s past president).
With a food service background, Roderick was tapped to do purchasing back when he first joined, and over the years became the “go-to guy” making sure everything got done.
But while the “secret” sauce has stayed the same, time has brought other changes.
Held once a month during the summer in its heyday, serving up as many as 1,600 half chickens, it now takes place twice a year, with one in September, when fraternity members from nearby Washington College are able to help do the heavy lifting required, cooking about 700 halves.
The physical labor involved became more than the group could readily manage without assistance.
“When I joined the Lions 50 years ago, I was one of the youngest members. Today, I’m still one of the youngest members,” Roderick chuckled.
Along with the college students’ labor, the event now benefits an updated BBQ pit, no longer requiring adding coals directly onto the ground. The old pit was donated to the Chestertown Fire Company.
“Thirty to 40 years ago, we were the only ones around here doing this. Now at least 10 different organizations, including the Fire Company and a number of churches, each have a chicken BBQ,” Roderick added.
Proceeds from the BBQ chicken fundraiser continue to help provide support for the visually impaired in the community, from those needing eye glasses, to the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Leader Dogs for the Blind, but also local scout troops, food banks, and garden clubs.
The group awards college scholarships to local students, Christmas baskets to local families, and has provided assistance to communities nationally and internationally ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters.
For information about the Linkwood-Salem Volunteer Fire Company, Station 61, call 410-221-0169 or visit their webpage lsvfd61.com/.
For information about the Chestertown Lions Club, write to them at PO Box 265, Chestertown MD or visit their webpage chestertownlions.org.