Beer Can Chicken

February 22, 2017 by

Olivia and I were sitting on the sofa one Sunday evening; the kids in bed, the house put back to rights after dinner, drinks on the coffee table, when the realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Livs,” I said, “We’re in tremendous danger of becoming old farts.”

Olivia laughed. I don’t think she rolled her eyes. “Go on, Ian,” she said, “what’s on your mind now?”

“Look,” I said, “It’s the end of the weekend. We’ve done the stuff we always do: family walk, horse rides, projects, games with the children. We had a great time, but if this is all we ever do, we will end up fat and lazy, and we won’t dare to do anything more than a walk to the village.”

“OK,” she said, “I’m not the one saying we have to do the same thing every weekend. If something else comes up, let’s give it a try.”

A few days later I was on the phone with Nathanael, a friend of ours who lives at the Beech Grove community, talking about chickens. Nathanael is an IT guy who spends most of his day saying calming things to angry people; the feather-stroking role might be one of the reasons he keeps a small flock of laying hens. His other hobby is building outdoor ovens; ghastly things that look like concrete igloos, but that foodie types go crazy over. “You guys should come over,” he said, “ We’ll make beer can chicken. It’s a Jamie Oliver thing. You take a whole chicken, stick it over an open can of beer, and shove it in the oven. Your family can come over to dinner and we’ll make an afternoon of it. We can use my outdoor oven.”

two young boys helping to baste a chicken fresh from the oven

I thought about the fifty miles of winding roads between Darvell and Beech Grove. I thought about the hassle of lining up the trip: jackets, hats, gloves, boots, puke bags for each of four children, food for the baby, emergency rations for the rest of us, water bottles, reading material. I thought about the Sunday afternoon nap that I would miss, the stress build-up, the family tensions that would surely ensue. “Nathanael,” I said, “You’re on. Let’s go for it.”

We left on a cold, clear Sunday morning, bright sun and people skating on the pond, but by the time we were halfway there it had become grey, overcast, and colder. We arrived at Beech Grove in the darkness of an overcast early afternoon, the cold seeping effortlessly through clothing. Someone was urgent for the bathroom. There was no one around. We felt very alone. The sight of Nathanael coming down to meet us with one of his kids was like the sight of a St. Bernard to poor travelers lost on a mountain pass.

The afternoon and dinner were fantastic. In spite of the hassle and stress I’d do it again. Not this year, but we would do it again. With their usual hospitality Nathanael and Rebecca went well out of their way to look after us. Their house was fairly small for the six of us together with them and their three children, so we alternated between bouncing off the walls inside where it was warm and playing outside in the cold. The chickens were rubbed down with spices, set over the cans of beer and shoved into the oven. Opening the oven door after a few minutes, you could hear the bubbling fizz of the beer boiling away inside.

We sat down to dinner all together at a long table. The chicken was outstanding. I’m not able to give an adequate gastronomic breakdown of what made it so good because as usual, most of my attention during the meal was focused on providing enough food for our one-year-old, and trying to prevent him from dumping all of his milk over his head.

It was a happy atmosphere, though, and looking down the table, I thought about the children, about the example we parents set for them, about the direction we try to lead them in. Given our ambition for them to grow up to be radical disciples of Christ, it seemed a bit pathetic that it was such a big deal for us just to drive several hours to have dinner with friends, but at least it was more than staying home; it was a direction.

When we left it was dark, and there was a light mist hugging the ground. The sky had cleared, and I could see a planet bright in the west. At a guess it was Venus; it did not have its usual silvery brightness, but the mist may have distorted the light. We got everyone safely stowed into their seats and strapped in, shouted goodbye, and pulled out. The temperature was dropping past freezing point and there was a gleam of moisture on the road. I prayed the roads were salted.

The mist thickened to fog. I drove most of the way at under thirty miles an hour, speeding up whenever it thinned and slowing down when it came swirling back. There is a stretch of road between the villages of Pluckley and Sissinghurst that is notorious for fog and sure enough, it was a proper pea-souper. I slowed down to ten miles an hour and navigated by watching the white line on the side of the road. The kids slept. Olivia and I talked quietly. We crawled westward along the twisting roads, listening to the pitch of the engine change as I shifted up and then down again. Every so often I would come around a corner and see that bright planet ahead, serene, steady, and clear above the fog.

Want to see the Beer Can Chicken process? Watch this:

Watch on YouTube.


About the author


Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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  • Gorgeous and very inventive! We miss you all!