A good ol’ time at the Virginia Chicken Festival

Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Jul 11, 2012 - 03:30 PM
Photo: Two of the original organizers of the festival who remain active, Irving Arnold, left, and Joseph Morrissette, keep an eye on proceedings. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

Two of the original organizers of the festival who remain active, Irving Arnold, left, and Joseph Morrissette, keep an eye on proceedings. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

Members of the Burkeville Ruritans and the Crewe Kiwanis of Nottoway County, for the 39th year, astounded more than 1,500 people on just how delicious chicken in all of its forms can be when cooked to perfection.
The occasion in mid-June was the Virginia Chicken Festival, where the bands struck up at 3 p.m. at Hooper Park in Crewe. The festival provided an afternoon of entertainment, good food, fellowship, fun and just an old-fashioned good time where Southern hospitality was in its prime. Early arrivals gathered under the shade of big old trees, under tents and in the palladium awaiting the arrival of the first chicken dish as they sipped on their beverage of choice. And the wait wasn’t very long before chicken wings, nuggets, livers, gizzards and stew (actually titled Roberts’ Rooster Stew) were being enjoyed by all, knowing that at 5 p. m. a full chicken dinner would be their next course.
On site and on the move were two men who have been associated with the festival ever since its beginning: Joseph Morrissette, mayor of Burkeville and chairman of the festival, and Irving Arnold, Commissioner of the Revenue of Nottoway County and the cooking sauce maker. “There are only five of our original founders remaining,” Joe said.
Irving has been developing the sauce used on all of the chicken with exception of the stew, for 39 years. “We took a recipe and modified it and have modified it over the years,” he explained. “We try to use less salt these days and we’ve cut back on the hot spice. I remember when I ate my first gizzard before we made it milder. It took my breath away. Today the gizzards, livers and fingers will be hotter than the barbecued chicken halves although the same sauce is used on it all. Since the halves are cooked on a grill much longer it cooks away some of the hot flavor.”
It was truly a two-community affair. Burkeville and Crewe have a population of 2,000 each and it appeared the majority of the 4,000 were there helping out in one facet or another. Cooking had begun at 6 a.m. Dean Wainwright, who had been working with the cooking, said he had been doing this for eight years. Billy Abel, chief of the Burkeville Police Department, commented, “I’ve been out here since six. I was the go-fer. Whatever was needed I went for it.”  Sue Mayo of Crewe said she had been serving chicken for “five years.”
People from all over Virginia and many other states including Hawaii (The family of Mim Jennings, a resident of Crewe, was having a reunion, one member being from our newest state) answered the age-old question; “Why did the chicken cross the road? Of course he was going to the Virginia Chicken Festival.”
What actually is barbecue? To the American purists “barbecue” is a wonderful Southern tradition of slow-cooking with indirect heat and wood smoke to transform cuts of meat, often inexpensive ones, into succulent, delicious results. Cooking anything else hot and fast on a grill rather then low and slow is called grilling.
The Virginia Chicken Festival’s half-chicken servings were cooked by a staff from the Tyson Company and it was perfect. If you follow these directions, your chicken will be just as delicious.
If you oil or spray your cooking racks it will help prevent sticking. If chicken has been marinating, let it drain well before placing on grill. If you like to use a rub on your chicken, do so before placing on grill. Do not baste your chicken with sauce while it is cooking. You baste the chicken after it is cooked and still on the grill. Cook chicken over lower temperatures for longer times. Resist the urge to continuously move the chicken around while it cooks. It will cook more evenly and more quickly if you turn it over only once midway through the cooking. To test for doneness make a small cut into the thickest part of the chicken; there should be no sign of pink; or a meat thermometer inserted should reach 180ºF. Allow chicken to rest after cooking on a grill. Keep in mind these two most important steps to cooking chicken; cook on low heat and use no sauce until chicken is essentially finished cooking.
This is the sauce used at the Virginia Chicken Festival on all the chicken including fried, gizzards and livers. The quantity will cook 100 chicken halves.
2 gal. cider vinegar
1 gal. vegetable oil    
1 qt. lemon juice
1½ oz. chili powder
1½ oz. red pepper
10 oz. Worcestershire sauce
6 oz. Texas Pete hot sauce    
1 lb. black pepper
26 oz. salt
Hold the salt aside. Place the rest of the ingredients in large pot and bring to rolling boil while stirring. After the liquid obtains a nice red color slowly add the salt, continue stirring aggressively. Use brush to apply the hot sauce. Now keep the chicken moist and turn frequently while watching for hot spots. You don’t want burnt chicken. Just remember to turn and then baste. 
For a large crowd, aluminum foil an ice chest and place the chicken in it; heavily baste the chicken one last time and cover well with foil. The chicken will be hot and flavorful for several hours.
Mr. Roberts has been making this stew for 35 plus years, usually making 100 gallons at a time.
6 lb. chicken, deboned
4 lb. potatoes, cut up
2½ lb. chopped yellow onions
1½ qt. crushed tomatoes
2½ qt. butter beans
2½ qt. yellow corn
¼ oz. black pepper
¼ oz. red pepper
1½ oz. salt or to taste
1½ oz. sugar
¼ lb. slab bacon, ground
Prepare potatoes and onions ahead of starting stew so that you can stir your stew constantly. That’s very important as it prevents sticking. This is stew and not soup. Put in pot the chicken and ground bacon. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until chicken starts coming apart. Add potatoes, onions and half of the seasonings. Return to a full boil and cook until potatoes are soft. Next add tomatoes and one-quarter of remaining seasonings. Bring back to a full boil and cook 5 to 10 minutes; then add butter beans and bring back to a full boil until butter beans are soft. Add corn and remaining seasonings and cook 15 to 20 minutes. The stirring paddle should be able to stand alone in the stew pot.