Things are bound to change over the course of 60 years, but the Lee School Chicken BBQ hasn’t changed much in that amount of time. The event will celebrate its anniversary on Friday as students, their families and others in the community gather to maintain the tradition of chicken roasted over hot charcoal and doused in a secret vinegar-based sauce.
One of those people is 90-year-old Grice Sexton of Manhattan. He was one of six original workers of the first Lee School BBQ.
“The first was at the school,” Sexton said. “We had around 100 people show up.” Sexton said that the original barbecue in 1952 was started by Tom Avery. Avery was known for putting on chicken barbecues all around the state. Avery was also the creator of the secret sauce.
Originally, “there really wasn’t a secret to the sauce at all,” Sexton said. “Avery went around telling everyone it was his secret sauce.”
But a secret it has remained. Event chair Kelly Thomason is the one of the few people who has seen the recipe for the sauce. She said the sauce recipe is heavily guarded.
“We know that it has butter and some other stuff in it,” Thomason said with a laugh.
Along with the sauce, almost nothing about the Lee School BBQ has changed. PTO member Craig Graves is in charge of cooking the chicken this year, and he said he can only think of two things that have really changed about it: the number of attendees and the fact that dessert is now served.
“We are going to serve around 1,000 people,” Graves said.
Also Sexton and his crews cooked the same day; now crews start preparing the food the day before the barbecue.
“On Thursday we set up the grill,” Graves said. “We get 600 pounds of charcoal for it. Then on Friday we start cooking around noon, placing the chicken in the grates and cooking them. Once they are finished, we put them into 60-gallon pots of the sauce and put those pots back on the coals before they are finished.”
All three past and present volunteers for the barbecue agree that through the years they are happy that the school fundraiser has remained a tradition.
“It’s really a community event,” Graves said.“Even if people don’t come, they still support us. We get support from a lot of local restaurants. We get our flatware, plates, to-go containers from them.”
There is one slight difference that has occurred over the past 60 years that has been driven by inflation. Sexton said that for the first barbecue, a meal with half a chicken and sides cost 75 cents. Now, it’s $9 per plate. But the money still goes toward the school.
“We use the money to support teachers and students,” Graves said. “We use it to go towards P.E. and playground equipment, all kinds of things.”
The event will start at 5 p.m. Friday at Lee School. Tickets for the barbecue can still be purchased at Lee School. Meals cost $9 for half chicken plus sides and dessert; $7.50 for a quarter of a chicken plus sides and dessert; of $5 for a kids’ meal, which include a hot dog instead of chicken.