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A Barbecue for Forty -- Getting It Done

Big barbecue in an oak grove
by John Raven, Ph. B.

A few days ago I had to put my money where my mouth is. I've been telling folks how to barbecue for years, and finally the time came for me to do it instead of just talk about it.

The occasion was the celebration of one of my many birthdays. I sent invitations to about 40 of my friends and relatives. The menu decided on was barbecued chicken, boiled new potatoes, corn on the cob, beans and a salsa.

Preparing for the Big Day

Of prime importance was the amount of food to prepare. No way to really determine that until two days before the party. I had 36 people respond favorably to my invitations. Enough food for 40 was the objective to leave a little room for unexpected guest.

Purchased were

  • 15 whole, dressed chickens of 3 or 4 pounds in size
  • 10 pounds of new potatoes
  • 60 of the frozen little corn on the cob thingies
  • 4 loaves of bread and margarine in the squirt bottles (2)
  • Enough vegetables for the salsa and mop sauce, plus assorted spices
  • Serving devices (plates, forks, knives, spoons, cups and paper
  • toweling for napkins)

Grills & Accessories
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Due to the fact that rust worms had eaten most of my old smoker, I borrowed one from a friend. This smoker is of the Texas Hill Country design: All-metal construction, about 3 feet wide, 5 feet long and 4 feet tall. The top is hinged to allow access to the grill, which is about 40 inches off the ground. There is a door on one end of the box where you shovel live coals into the smoker.

About ten days before the party, the borrowed smoker was given a test drive to determine the amount of coals needed to bring it up to temperature and determine the approximate cooking time needed. Everything went well with the test.

Now comes the busy part. Thursday evening before the party I prepared the salsa. It needs at least 24 hours in the icebox for the flavors to marry properly.

Friday I prepared the chickens. I split the chickens with the aid of my trusty pruning shears. The backbones were removed and saved for stock making. The chickens were then trimmed of excess fat and the giblets removed. There's a lot of fat and giblets in 15 chickens. The halves were washed and dried and given a generous sprinkle of onion powder and black pepper and stashed in the icebox. In my spare time, I prepared cauliflower, celery sticks and carrot sticks for the snacking veggie tray.

The Big Day of the Barbecue

Saturday morning bright and early I hit the floor. After breakfast, I started hauling all the equipment down to the party site (under an oak grove). I arranged the stuff so it would be handy and easy to locate the various items. While I was hauling the next load, one of the resident cats had a snack from one of the loaves of bread (keep this in mind if you have critters around your site).

Guests began to arrive around noon. I started a fire to make coals for the smoker. I prefer the native oak for my cooking. The fire was contained in half a 55-gallon drum splint lengthwise; makes the coals easy to pick up with a shovel. At one o'clock, I shoveled the first coals in the smoker and when it came up to temperature, I put the chicken halves, bone side down, on the grill and gave them a sprinkle of salt. The large load of chicken absorbed a lot of heat. I had to shovel in more coals than I expected to. As coals were used, more wood was put on the fire to keep a good supply on hand.

While the chicken was beginning to cook, I prepared a pot of mop sauce which was simply a large onion and the contents and rinds of six limes in about two quarts of water brought to a boil. When the chickens began to look a little dry, I would give them a generous swabbing with the mop sauce.

Next came washing the potatoes and cutting them into equal size portions. While cutting them, I removed any visible bad spots. Two large stock pots were set to boiling on Coleman stoves.

In my spare time, I set out the veggie tray and a crockpot of chili dip I had made, along with chips and "bought" Ranch style dip for the veggies. To kill a little more time, I made a couple of gallons of tea.

Next time I'm getting the butcher to do some of the work. About two hours before serving time, I put the potatoes on to boil. I put two packs of crab boil in the water for flavor. The crab boil was also used in the pot where the corn was cooked. Evidently I should have used four bags of crab boil per pot as the flavor was not what I expected.

I opted to go with canned beans just to save the time, and it only took a few minutes to heat them.

The chickens were done about an hour before serving time. I gave them a good brushing with a bottled sauce and let the fire die down just enough to glaze them and keep them warm.

The meal was set up buffet style. The chicken halves were cut into two portions so guests could choose white or dark. No one left hungry.

There was too much food. I had about five chickens left over, along with goodly portions of potatoes, corn, beans and salsa, but I prefer to err on the plus side. The leftovers are all cozy in my freezer now.

Cleaning up the equipment was an all-day chore.

Looking back on the whole affair, I can see a couple of things that I would change for the next party. First of all, I would make arrangements with the supermarket to get chicken halves instead of whole chickens. That would save a lot of labor and loss due to the large amounts of fat and giblets in the whole chickens. I would use a lot more crab boil for the potatoes and corn. I just didn't get the taste I wanted from two bags per pot. The potatoes and corn were very good but could have been better. We had some Styrofoam platters for the guests, but they were a little flimsy; several broke. You need a good, sturdy, big plate for outdoor dining. The potatoes and corn lost some heat in their serving platters. Some homemade version of a steam table would be in order.

Other than these things, I think the party went very well. The only thing that could have made it easier is if I had known exactly how many people to expect. But then, a little adventure is good for the spirit.

My best advice for giving a big barbecue would be to plan your menu well in advance. Try to determine how many people you expect. Prepare a little extra for unexpected guests. Make sure you have enough seating for everyone. Always have plenty of napkins. Prepare some non-alcoholic beverage for them that don't drink. If you have a new or untried smoker, give it a test drive before you get involved in a big barbecue.

My salsa got great reviews from the guests, so I'm including the recipe for you to try at your next barbecue.


  • 2 Large tomatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 Cucumber, seeded, peeled and sliced
  • 1 4 oz. can Chopped green chiles
  • 1/3 cup Diced onion
  • 2 tablespoons Brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup Apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • ½ teaspoon Celery seeds
  • ½ teaspoon Black pepper
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate in sealed container overnight.
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