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Oldest food stand at New York State Fair leaves forever

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Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton visit Baker’s Chicken Coop in 1999

Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton visit Baker’s Chicken Coop in 1999
Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP (Getty Images)

Late summer is state and county fair season, when Americans flock to miniature cities set up on empty fields so they can admire giant vegetables and butter sculptures, take a spin on hastily assembled rides, and, most importantly, eat lots of fried food on sticks.

Last summer, of course, everything was canceled because of COVID and quarantine, though some states attempted to re-create the experience virtually and through drive-thru and mail order (and some food writers tested homemade versions). This year, though, the fairs are back. But still, some things are never going to be the same ever again.

For instance, Baker’s Chicken Coop, which has been serving visitors to the New York State Fair since 1949, making it the oldest food stand at the fair, has, uh, flown the coop. And it won’t be coming back.

“There are a lot of reasons,” Reenie Baker-Sandsted, who has been running the stand with her two sisters since the death of their parents, Robert and Jacoba Baker, told Syracuse.com. COVID was one, she said, but mostly the sisters were apprehensive about the fair’s run time, which this year is expanding to 18 days. “That would just be hard.”

Baker’s Chicken Coop was famous for serving half chickens grilled and slathered with Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce, made with cider vinegar, egg, and poultry seasoning, invented by Robert Baker, who had worked for many years in Cornell University’s poultry lab. During his lifetime, it would be his signature achievement, although now he’s remembered as the inventor of the chicken nugget.

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In its heyday, Baker’s sold 3,000 half-chickens a day, accompanied by salt potatoes, a favorite side dish of upstate New York. (In later years, the daily run was more like 1,500, mostly because it had started serving chickens by the quarter, not just the half.) Its A-frame shaped booth was a beloved landmark, but it’s been torn down because it no longer met fire codes.

“I think it’s fair to say that for the State Fair it was an historic landmark,” the fair’s director, Troy Waffner, told Syracuse.com. “On a personal level … this one is hard to lose.”

Baker’s is just one of 65 food vendors who won’t be returning to the New York State Fair this year, for one reason or another. But guess what? Cornell has made the recipe for its barbecue sauce public! You can make your own version of Baker’s Chicken Coop at home, though perhaps it might not taste the same if it’s not tended by a chicken legend.

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