Every summer Wednesday since 1969, members of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church Men’s Club have gathered at the Serbian Picnic Grounds along King’s Creek outside of Weirton, West Virginia. In a long, cement block building, they mill about in the dawn light, eating donuts, drinking coffee, and reading the morning paper. They’re here for a weekly fundraiser they call a “Chicken Blast,” for which they roast 300-400 chickens and sell them to the Weirton community.
“Guys get down here usually around 5:30 in the morning, and they start the process of what we have to do—cleaning the poles up, getting the chickens out, and more or less getting preparations to start the day. I start the fire,” said John Kosanovich, a Men’s Club member.
Kosanovich is nonchalant about the process, but it’s a lot of work. Each member knows their role, and they work together like a well-oiled machine, tending the fires, adding salt and pepper to the chickens, tying 25 to a pole, rotating the poles so each is evenly roasted, checking the chickens for doneness, and then wrapping them in tinfoil to stay hot for customers. When the afternoon rolls around, they take breaks to eat or have a beer from the on-site bar.
The roasting operation is impressive. Four open-air hearths hold three to four poles stacked on top of one another, with about 25 chickens each. A geared machine rotates each pole over the wood fire, burning at about 800 degrees. The chickens on top drip fat on the chickens below, naturally basting them. Other than that, the recipe is deceptively simple.
“They taste terrific!” said Chicken Blast volunteer Jon Greiner. “I think some people say it's the best chickens that they've ever had. A lot of people think there's a secret recipe—there's no secret to it at all. It's just salt and pepper and we make sure they're cooked.”
A Community of Steel Workers
This complex spit design, an industrial brick oven, and walk-in coolers were built just for this purpose by members of the Men’s Club, who worked at Weirton Steel. They used the specialized skills they developed at work as pipefitters, bricklayers, and machinists to help design and build these hearths.
Their ancestors settled in the Upper Ohio Valley at the turn of the 20th century, establishing the church and picnic grounds.
While the Serbian population has shrunk in recent years with the decline of coal and steel jobs, the community remains an important presence in the Weirton and Steubenville, Ohio communities. In the early days, the customer base was largely steel mill workers and their families.
“Most guys that worked in the mill, they were looking for lunches after work or took a chicken to work for their lunch. And the more the word spread around in the mill about this being available, more people took the opportunity to make themselves available for it,” Kosanovich said.
They chose their roasting day to coincide with the mill workers’ Wednesday payday.
As steel jobs declined in Weirton, the number of chickens the Club sells per week has declined with it. In the early ‘80s, the Club could sell 600-700 chickens a week. Now they average about 350.
“I started in the mill in 1966. And we had 14,000 workers in there. And when I retired in 2003, we had a little over 2,000. So we had a big drop-off,” Kosanovich said.
Still, the men cook about 5,000 chickens over the course of the summer, usually selling out each week in a matter of two and a half hours. Some regular customers have standing weekly orders and come down to the picnic grounds early to stake out their favorite picnic table for their evening chicken dinner.
A Taste of Serbia
The survival of the tradition can be attributed not only to how the weekly Blast fostered community among steel workers but also connects families to their Serbian heritage. Many of the men remember roasting meat in their backyards with their families growing up.
“I lived next to my grandmother and grandfather, and they used to do pigs for Christmas. And we didn’t have electric spits, we had by hand. We were kids. We’d go up there and turn the spit. It would take hours, but we didn’t care. It was cold in January, but we were by that warm fire. You just knew you were helping for the day, and it was a lot of fun,” Kosanovich remembered.
It’s that connection that keeps him coming down at dawn, to stand over a hot fire, every week in the heat of summer.
“Why do I do it?” he asked. “My basic word is tradition. You know, it’s something that you see it done every day, every week, you want to get involved with it.”
The money raised from the Chicken Blasts help the Men’s Club maintain the Picnic Grounds, which are used for graduations, weddings, and other church celebrations, like the Annual Serbian Picnic. The Picnic is like a larger version of the Chicken Blast and serves as a homecoming for those who have moved away from the Weirton area. As usual, the Men’s Club roast hundreds of chickens and a few lambs. The church sells other Serbian fare such as pogacha (a type of Serbian bread), haluski or cabbage and noodles, cevaps (a pork, lamb, and beef sausage), strudel, and nut rolls. Attendees eat, drink beer and Slivovitz, dance to traditional Serbian music, and catch up with family and old friends.
The Chicken Blasts run from the last weekend in May to the last weekend in August at the Serbian Picnic Grounds in Weirton, WV. To order a chicken, call 1-304-748-9866 the Wednesday morning of the Blast. Make sure to start calling at 6:00am the morning of the blast; they’re usually sold out by 8:30am. For more information, visit Serbian Picnic Grounds on Facebook.
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia State Folklorist with the West Virginia Humanities Council. Learn more about the West Virginia Folklife Program, a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council, at wvfolklife.org.