Labor Day, also and forever known to me and mine as Red Rooster Day. This was our last one in Kansas. And what, you ask, is this Red Rooster thing? Red Rooster Day is a festival for a very small town in South Central Minnesota. The town folk of Dassel got together in 1959, and decided they wanted to BBQ chicken for everybody on Labor Day. It was the neighborly thing to do. Along with that, there was wagering on where a cow would poop in a corral, and maybe some pie. My Dad and his brother grew up in the area, and my Dad’s brother lived in town and helped with the chicken. Everybody did. I think you got shunned out of town, if you didn’t help out. Them Swedes were harsh like that. You put the harness on and pulled with the team, or you got booted out on your hiney.
Anyway, back in ’59, I got taken to the very first Red Rooster Day. I only remember it from pictures, as I was only 9 months old.
So the boys built the BBQ pits next to the feed mill and put a roof on it, cause sure as heck, it’s gonna rain when you want to do up some chicken. The pits are a series of parallel cinder blocks, spaced the exact width apart as the chicken rack. They are quite long, 30 feet maybe, and you start on the south end with raw chicken, flip the rack over and down one length to the North every 10 minutes or so. And you start spraying the chicken with a secret BBQ sauce about the second flip. By the time you get to the North end, the chicken is done and you start all over again. When the chicken is GBD (golden brown and delicious), it gets hauled up to the feed mill and gets served with coleslaw, beans, potato chips and white or dark bread. Some milk, maybe, for the kids and Nancy boys. Everybody gets their food, and sits down in the big storage shed of the feed mill, on picnic tables scrounged from the town folk, and starts to dig in. The view from the picnic table was people chewing on chicken, and feed sacks stacked to the ceiling. When you were done and using a toothpick to get the dark meat out of yer teeth, you rounded up the kids and told them if they were really good, we could go down and get some pie and coffee, maybe. We were always running around and causing grief, never anywhere close to being good, but got pie anyway.
My first memories of this day were of smoke billowing out of the pits and covering the whole area, and the delicious aroma of BBQed chicken. And mist or rain, it did that a lot on that day. I made it to every Red Rooster Day, until I was grown and moved on.
A few decades later, while living in New Mexico, we bought a Weber Grill, and started doing BBQed chicken on Labor Day. Our own little Red Rooster Day in the Southwest. We lived in the mountains, at around 7100 feet, and neighborhood bears always loved the smell of chicken, live or dead. I tended to grill with a rifle close by. When we got to Kansas, the wife’s sister and her family got invited to our little BBQ. Last year was at their place, this year was at ours. Both of us are empty nesters and it is like pulling teeth to get the kids to agree to come and be on time, so one is never sure how many you are BBQing for.
Kansas is always hot this time of year and we were going through a heat wave that was supposed to peak on Labor Day. Our stone house likes to hang on to the day’s heat, and currently it was pushing out 88 degrees. The Mrs and I are a bit miserly with air conditioning, and have one that cools the upstairs and maybe a little bit down stairs. Lots of fans, it is quite often windy outside and inside at the same time. We are used to it, but guests can be a bit finicky when it comes to personal comfort. We don’t invite those kinds of people. Being it was going to be just family, they could tough it out for some good chicken.
The chicken was the last from our home grown stuff. The freezer is looking kind of empty and that is good. We always brine our chicken the day before and that’s what we did. Labor Day morning, the Mrs made a blackberry custard pie and I did it on the grill. There was no way we were going to fire up the oven today. I had not done a pie for awhile and went conservative on the coals. I ended up having to add a half a chimney of coals to finish the pie. You just roll with the punches, it all works out in the end.
The Mrs had made potato salad the day before and we had told everybody to be here at noon. There was not much to be done except the chicken, and I, because this is not my first rodeo, decided to get the chicken on the grill at a quarter to 12. I did two 3/4 full chimneys of charcoal and put one chimney of coals on the back wall of the grill and spread the other on the cooking side. I spread those coals out pretty good, ‘cause I was sure nobody was going to be on time. The chicken goes on and we wait. And wait. 10 after 12 comes and my phone rings. It is the sister in law and she said she just looked at the clock and wow, look at the time. Yup, I said. She asked if the kids were here yet, I said Nope, not yet. You’ve got to be a minimalist in conversation to give guilt time to do it’s job. It worked, because she said they would clean up and be by in a jiffy. Good thing I spaced out those coals.
About 10 minutes after that, my son, his girlfriend and their new son, along with a friend and his family, showed up. It was so windy in the house, my dog Sweet Pea, didn’t detect an intrusion to the property, so I led him outside so he could bark once at everybody, for being late, and then start lovin on them. My son’s friend Lloyd has a little girl that is not real sure about dogs. Ole Sweet Pea gave her a sniff and just like that, they were buddies. We got everybody bundled into the house and passed out drinks. The Mrs had to grab the grand kid right away and I went to move the chicken closer to the hot coals. 20 minutes later, the sister in law and husband show up and now it’s a party. And wouldn’t you know it, the chicken just hit 170 degrees. Like I said, not my first rodeo.
Our little kitchen is not really set up for 8 adults and 2 kids. We shoe horned everybody in, the Mrs and I stood and milled around. I grabbed my grand kid and took him on a tour of the house. I pointed out what still needed to be done and talked about tuck pointing techniques for the back stone wall. He is one of those kids that is always looking in the wrong direction, like his dad, but seemed to nod a bit when asked him if he was paying attention. Not bad for being only 6 weeks old. I looked around for my dog, and found him tucked in, under the table, just being a good boy.
The chicken was eaten, the pie served up and then the men headed outside. It was 102 degrees then, and we took refuge in the shop. The brother in law brought a round of beers and we did what men do, sat around, drinking beer, telling stories. A small bottle of something that tasted like mouthwash got passed around and the stories continued. Eventually, the women came to collect their men and that was that. Nothing left but to go in the house, watch the wife do the dishes, and have some coffee. Our last Labor Day in Kansas. I told the wife to toss out the secret Red Rooster BBQ sauce recipe, because next year, we will let the city of Dassel feed us.