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~ Around Town (in search of a blockpit & a recipe for PA-Style Blockpit BBQ'd Butter 'n Vinegar Chicken) ~

IMG_5268My search for a blockpit began about six months ago.  A girlfriend from Ohio, who works with noneother than The Grillmaster himself, Steven Raichlen, contacted me.  Nancy explained that Steven's website had received an e-mail request for a specific recipe for barbecued chicken, cooked over a wood fire in a structure made of cinderblocks.  During the cooking process, the half chickens or chicken parts are misted, not brushed, with a mixture of melted butter, vinegar, salt, pepper, and sometimes lemon juice.  Nancy added that, in the e-mail, the man said "he had grown up eating this unique chicken in Pennsylvania".  I knew what he was referring to because:

DSC09701I grew up in a world full of 'blockpits' and polka music. Every organization had one. Lion's, Rotary, Elks Clubs, every town's fire company, every county fair, etc. In fact, the corporation my dad worked for always had a blockpit at their annual picnic and clambake. This photo is courtesy of: www.forkknifeand,

AND, it portrays exactly what I remember:  Two layers of cinderblocks above the ground, with a pit dug several feet underneath.  Chicken, ribs, burgers, etc., were placed on a hinged, double-sided iron rack with long handles, which allowed a large quantity of food to be lifted and flipped over with 'ease'.  Beyond that, they create a few problems:  1)  Because all food gets turned at once, moving individual pieces from direct to indirect heat, so they cook evenly, is impossible. 2) Flare-ups, created by dripping fat, must be dealt with immediately by dousing water or throwing sand on the fire, and/or, by lifting the iron rack and adding another layer of cinderblocks to control the heat.  3)  A low pit means a lot of bending and lifting, not to mention, depending upon the surface area of the blockpit and the rack(s), it requires a nonstop crew of two or four or more.

IMG_5270Modern-day blockpit masters have learned to built their pits higher, to countertop height.  The higher structure results in more smoke and less fire.  The food no longer requires the cumbersome iron racks or a crew of lifters.  It gets moved around on an as-needed basis, resulting in each piece being perfectly cooked to a deep golden brown while remaining moist and juicy on the inside, rather than a large portion of the pieces being charred to a crisp and dried out.

I do not believe the blockpit itself is native to Pennsylvania, because over the years, I've seen them on our travels at roadside foodstands throughout the rural areas of both the North and South.  What I was unprepared for was how hard it would be for me to locate one locally.  I made phone calls to every organization I could think of to no avail.  Then one day in September, I saw a sign on Bear Meadows Road, right here in Boalsburg, PA, advertising Clem's BBQ!

IMG_5265What did this mean to me?  It meant the owner of Clems BBQ, one of our most famous local BBQ'rs might be able to help me out, and, I wasn't going to have to drive more than a half a mile for a consult.  You see, Bear Meadows Road borders on the back of my property and leads to the Tussey Moutain Ski Slope, where Clem's  BBQ & Catering operates from on certain days of the week.  I called, I scheduled an appointment, and, what happened next, brought tears to my eyes:

Meet Deb Pearson, Owner, Clem's BBQ & Catering!


IMG_5293Deb lives in the BBQ world of smoke, fire, welder's gloves, tongs, spray bottles, aluminum pans and meat cleavers.  She also just finished building an under-roof blockpit on Tussey Mountain, and, here is where 'the powers that be' led me -- literally, almost my backyard!

While she BBQ's chicken, ribs, and all things in between (and slathers them with her signature sauce), she'd not heard of or made BBQ'd Butter 'n Vinegar Chicken, but, she loved the idea of it and immediately agreed to give it a go. So, yesterday I spent the afternoon with her:

IMG_5307From beginning to the end, the chicken cooked in 1 hour, 30-45 minutes. Before the chicken hit the heat of the BBQ, Deb misted it on both sides with a mixture of:

1  cup melted butter (2 sticks)

1  cup apple cider vinegar

1  teaspoon lemon juice

1 1/2-2  teaspoons sugar

1/2-3/4  teaspoon kosher salt

3/4-1  teaspoon black pepper

IMG_5278The chicken was placed on the hottest, direct heat and cooked briefly, until just golden on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Next, it was moved to the lower indirect heat of the pit, to cook until it reached an internal temperature of 160-165 degrees.  Throughout the process, each time it was turned, it was misted with the butter mixture.  At no time was the chicken turned before it's time, meaning:  if the chicken didn't release itself from the iron grid, it did not get turned.  

IMG_5329As every couple or few pieces of chicken reached the 160-165 degree mark, they were moved back to the hottest part of the grill to finish cooking to an internal temperature of 180-185 degrees, not to mention an intense golden brown color on the outside.  During this short finishing process the chicken doesn't get misted.

IMG_5340Tip #1 from Deb: "Don't rush this. On any given day, the heat of the pit and environmental elements affect time and temperature."

Tip #2 from Deb: "Don't mist at the end because the sugar in the mixture has already done its work and given it lovely caramelization. Additional misting at the end will cause the chicken to burn."

IMG_5289Tip # 3 from Deb:  "After the chicken is cooked, move it to the coolest part of the pit, cover it with an aluminum pan and allow to rest, to stabilize the juices, for a few minutes.  This keeps it warm while it rests."  Note: It was windy yesterday so Deb weighed the pan down with a piece of firewood.

Deb transferred my finished chicken to a cutting board:

IMG_5353I cut those two moist, juicy beauties open:

IMG_5383Drizzled them with Clem's signature (drinkable) BBQ sauce:

IMG_5401Seriously, anybody want to mess with this kind of success!?!

IMG_5412Around Town (in search of a blockpit & a recipe for PA-Style Blockpit BBQ'd Butter 'n Vinegar Chicken:  Recipe yields instructions for grilling this chicken on a wood-fired blockpit.  That being said, this method adapts perfectly to a charcoal grill or a gas grill too.

Special Equipment List:  blockpit or grill; spray-bottle; long-handled grilling tongs

IMG_4684Cook's Note:  ~ Want buttery 'pull-apart' rolls with dinner tonight? ~. Check out my easy-to-make recipe in Categories 5, 11, 18, 19 or 20. Pile pieces of Deb's chicken onto each one and dip into her BBQ sauce for a slider sandwich.  

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)


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