MILFORD, Del. (AP) — For many in Kent and Sussex counties, Delaware has two seasons — chicken barbecue season and not chicken barbecue season.
In Milford, charcoal barbecue smoke filled the air on May 14, signaling that chicken barbecue season has begun for Milford Moose Family Center 2316.
The Loyal Order of Moose is a fraternal and service organization founded in 1888 — the Milford lodge opened about 100 years later in 1987. Soon after, the Milford group started cooking chicken. Their barbecued offering was so well received, it became a weekly event that starts in May and ends around the start of October.
When the group started its barbecue endeavors, it was based in a small building in downtown Milford. Now, the group is based in the southeast portion of the city. It has a large barbecue pit under a covered cooking area near a picnic pavilion and horseshoe pit area.
“We have guys come out early in the morning. The guys come out and volunteer their time,” said Milford Moose President Jim Andrew.
Once the chicken is done, it is delivered to a mobile food cart colloquially called “The Chicken Shack.” That is where customers purchase their platters and interact with the volunteers there.
The lodge is mainly operated by its volunteers, said Terry Bowden, lodge administrator.
“Some people have their own little niche on how to help the lodge. Some guys enjoy getting up early on a Saturday to cook chicken,” Mr. Bowden said.
Though chicken barbecue fans enjoy their meals Saturday, the work begins a couple of days earlier.
On Thursdays, lodge leaders pick up their chicken order. Fridays are filled with prep work and Saturday is when the action starts. The charcoal is lit at 6 a.m. Once the charcoal is at the correct temperature, the chicken crew gets to work.
The Chicken Shack is open for business at about 11 a.m. every Saturday, from now until late fall.
“We say 11 a.m., but we don’t sell the chicken until it is ready. If it’s a windy day, a rainy day, it may be 12:30 p.m. That’s up to God,” Mr. Bowden said.
Sales continue until all the food is sold. Lodge members suggest customers should arrive as close to 11 a.m. as they can.
Across the region, there are a few different groups that sell barbecued chicken. What sets the Milford Moose apart from its fellow chicken cookers, is its second option. Along with barbecued chicken, the group also sells barbecued pork.
But like everyone else, the Moose Family Center is facing higher prices for chicken and supplies. For many years, the group offered a half of a chicken, two sides, a roll and more for $8. Now, the group will offer platters of a half of a chicken, one side dish, a roll and a pickle spear for $10.
“Prices are going up. So, we are having to change prices. We are having to give up some stuff to still have it. We have to make a little bit of money on it. We’d love to give it away, but we can’t,” Mr. Andrew said.
The Moose volunteers cook 96 half chickens and about 60 pounds of pork each week.
The organization’s chicken sales are vital to its survival.
“The barbecue is one of the ways we keep our doors open,” Mr. Bowden said.
As a service fraternity, once the lodge’s bills are paid, it gives back to the community.
“There are a lot of things that we do that people don’t have any clue,” Mr. Bowden said.
Along with donating money to groups like the Salvation Army, the Food Bank of Delaware and the Special Olympics, the lodge helps many people who need immediate aid.
“We pay power bills, doctor bills, medicine, eyeglasses. We’ve paid for funerals. We pay oil bills,” Mr. Bowden said.
The lodge also supports veteran organizations like the Home of the Brave, but helping senior citizens motivates the Moose lodge.
Each Thanksgiving, the Milford Moose Lodge prepares a free meal for seniors to enjoy. Mr. Andrew said the lodge wants to make sure local seniors citizens get to have a holiday meal, but more importantly he wants them to know they are not alone.
The weekly chicken barbecue is such a vital part of the group’s mission that like many other similar operations, the COVID-19 pandemic could have devastated the lodge.
But the entire effort is outside. Masks and social distancing allowed them to continue. The lodge members learned they weren’t just making money, they were providing a service to their customers.
“We did social distancing. Everyone had on a mask. We marked out six-feet spaces,” Mr. Bowden said.
Each week, the group would sell out of food. Cars would line up down the organization’s long driveway. As each customer picked up their order, they left behind smiles, waves and gratitude.
“Not one person complained. They wanted their chicken,” Milford Moose Vice President Reginald Hatley said.
The Milford Moose Family Center isn’t the only group that cooks chicken. Some others include:
— Last month, the Greenwood Volunteer Fire Company kicked off its barbecued chicken season. Chicken barbecue is a popular fundraiser for the fire department, and it is a must-go spot for many summer beach travelers. This year, Greenwood’s platters will be $10. They open at 8 a.m.
— The Bridgeville Kiwanis also fired up their chicken barbecue season last month. The group opens at noon on Saturdays.
— The Milford Elks Lodge 2401 on Elks Lodge Road in Milford host nearly monthly chicken barbecues throughout the summer. The Elks will sell chicken June 18, July 30 and Sept. 3.
Each region in the country has its own style or flavor of barbecue. The Delaware way uses pickle juice.
When asked if Mr. Bowden would share anything about the Milford Moose Family Center’s chicken barbecue recipe, he said, “Sure … It’s good.”