Summer Cooking 

Stick a beer can in your next bird

Stick a beer can in your next bird

My friend Scott hollered at me one day. “Come on over,” he said. “I’m gonna cook drunk chicken.”

“Drunk what?” I asked.

“Drunk chicken,” he said. “It’s one of the most delicious things in the world.”

A few hours later I dropped by Scott’s house, and there, on his grill, were three beautiful birds with cans of Budweiser stuck up their orifices. It was such a lovely sight: the birds mounted on the cans, all standing upright, their skin turning a golden-brown as the beer evaporated into them.

An hour or so later, Scott took the birds off the grill, threw them onto a cutting board, took out a huge cleaver and started whacking at them. With the slightest effort, the meat fell from the bone. I have never tasted chicken that good in my life.

Since that day, I have cooked drunk chicken—also known as “beer can chicken” or “beer butt chicken”—regularly. It is the perfect thing to cook if you are having one of those semi-large summer gatherings (I’m talking about a dozen people or more) because the more chickens you line up on the grill, the lovelier a sight it is.

Not only is drunk chicken the perfect large-food centerpiece, but it also becomes, inevitably, a conversational centerpiece, because someone is going to ask, “What’s that chicken doing on the grill with a beer shoved up inside him?” Frankly, who can blame them for asking? I have sometimes asked myself, “Who was the first guy to invent beer can chicken? I mean, what sort of fellow would shove a beer into a bird and set him on a grill?” Not that I’d want to do a mental-health makeup on the guy, but I would wager 10-to-1 that the beer was the sixth in the six-pack and the cook had already drunk the other five.

The drunk-chicken movement has much of its roots in Louisiana, and since I come from there, and know many people there, I can say that, yeah, Bayou people have the appropriate psychological makeup to take the initiative on something like beer chicken. After all, it involves that very recognizable set of Louisianan components: beer, a unique culinary imagination and a bit of insanity.

Beyond simple guesswork and instinct, I have in recent months stumbled upon some factual evidence pointing to Louisiana’s complicity in the origin of the drunk-chicken movement, and that comes courtesy of a book I picked up recently called Beer Can Chicken, by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishers).

Since putting the beer up the orifice of the chicken and making it stand correctly on the grill is sometimes a challenge, this book suggests various beer-chicken stands that you can buy to make sure the beer and chicken remain upright on the grill. Basically, these contraptions are welded pieces of metal. The addresses of the places that make these contraptions are almost all in South Louisiana. And so what I’m picturing here, and I bet I’m right, are offshore oil workers who spend a lot of time welding and figuring out solutions to metallic problems—the working men of America who have made beer can chicken what it is today. We should all thank them.

But back to the point of all this: What makes beer can chicken so delicious? The theory, and I buy it, is that the heat from the fire causes the beer from the can to flow into the bird and keep it moist. There’s really no overwhelming beer flavor in the chicken meat—it’s just the constant movement of the liquid through the bird to keep it basted.

The author of Beer Can Chicken suggests a number of things you can do to the beer, including adding garlic and onion juice for a little variety. He also suggests adding—and here’s yet another Louisiana connection—a shot of crab boil to the beer.

If you don’t want to buy the book (you will after you’ve tried the following recipe) here’s a down and dirty primer for beer can chicken. At least, it’s how I do it. It’s utterly simple, really. And if you have any further questions, you can e-mail the Scene’s Beer Chicken Hot Line (bdobie@ nashvillescene.com) and I’ll be happy to answer all your questions.

Step 1: Before I mount the chicken on the beer can, I rub the bird liberally with olive oil. I then cover it completely with Tony Chachere’s Original Seasoning, which is a Cajun seasoning you can pick up in Nashville grocery stores. If you don’t want to do that, consider applying a bunch of pepper (red and black) and salt on the bird.

Step 2: Drink about one-third of a can of beer. Make sure the tab is completely open so there’s enough room for the beer to escape. Put the chicken on top of the beer. And put all of that on the grill so that the beer is standing straight up and the chicken is mounted on top of it. (See photo.)

Step 3: Keep your grill at low heat. I’m talking around 300 degrees. Cook the bird covered for a long time—an hour and a half to two hours is great. I promise you it won’t dry out.

Step 4: It’s sometimes tricky getting the chicken off the grill—the beer spills all over the place and makes a mess of things. Not to mention the fact that the liquid is very hot, so be careful. But you’ll have been through a couple of other libations by then. You won’t mind the mess. And that, my friends, is beer chicken.

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