Bethany’s VFW barbecue — a Saturday afternoon staple

Every Saturday, volunteers from VFW Post 7234 cook up a Bethany Beach tradition that has become as time-honored as the town’s popular bandstand performances. The smell of roast chicken and ribs wisps through the air as weekend traffic is seemingly guided down Coastal Highway via smoke signal. However, the powwow is, in fact, the VFW’s Saturday barbecue, one of the most recognized events in the area and one that feeds tens of thousands of people throughout the summer months.

Coastal Point • Jesse PryorCoastal Point • Jesse Pryor

The barbecue pit, located at the front of the National Guard Training Site of the 193rd Regiment since 1980, is operated by roughly 30 volunteers from the local VFW post. Prior to its move to a spot beside the helicopter display that now welcomes beachgoers into the town’s north side, the VFW operated their venture in the median of Garfield Parkway, where the totem pole-like sculpture of “Chief Little Owl” currently stands.

“A lot of people don’t realize how long we’ve been doing this,” said VFW Post 7234 member Fred Lehman, who has helped lead the barbecue the past two years and has contributed countless hours for nearly a decade. “We usually feed 500 people on a weekend,” he added. “Everyone who stops by really seems to enjoy it.”

Most of the Post 7234 members who man the pit have joined the barbecue crew since 1980, although a handful can recall the festivity when it was still in downtown Bethany.

“It’s not easy remembering back to the start of it,” admitted Jack Lynch, who has been helping since the start – leading to the weekly offering being unofficially coined as the “Jack Lynch Chicken Barbeque.”

During the summer season, the morning crew arrives every Saturday morning, some as early as 5 a.m., to prepare the pit for a morning of slow-roasted, mouth-watering excellence. Large, flat baskets, each holding up to 40 pieces of chicken and ribs, are used to cook the meat and capture the smoky flavor of the pit.

An hour and 15 minutes is allotted to ensure tender, fall-off-the-bone goodness, with watchful eyes and methodical supervision. A secret marinade, courtesy of the women’s auxiliary (the “Saucy Girls,” as the VFW members refer to them), is applied to the chicken as it roasts, for a finishing touch. The chicken comes in from Holt’s Supply in Salisbury, while the ribs are brought down from Lancaster, Pa.

The VFW’s afternoon crew of volunteers comes in to finish the job, grilling the meat, rotisserie-style, until it’s ready to be plated or boxed up. While some assume specific roles, such as charcoal smoker (misting down the hot embers to give off a billow of mesquite zest) or temperature-taker (who ensures the meat is cooked through to perfection), others come for the social aspect.

“There are some people here who we don’t see until the weekend,” said Lehman, “and it’s a good time to get together and socialize.”

It isn’t just meeting up with other VFW members that bring joy to the group. They see the same people each week, some who have been returning each summer for years.

“We have a fellow who comes by every time he’s in town and buys $100 worth of chicken,” said Lehman. “Most people like stopping on their way through. It’s a perfect way to spend an afternoon with the family. We get people stopping in before going out to the beach, or fishing.”

The meat is cooked and sold until everything’s gone — which, lately, with the summer influx, has been by early afternoon.

“It’s getting into the heart of the summer, and we’re seeing high numbers,” said Lehman.

Money raised from the meat sales hasn’t gone unnoticed. The VFW donates profits right back into the community, to all types of organizations, from CHEER centers, local fire companies, the River Soccer Club and the Pyle Center.

“We have a lot of support from locals and vacationers who come to this area, and we want to show our appreciation for those who do what they do around here,” said Lehman.

Each year, $4,000 to $5,000 is raised by the group from chicken and rib sales alone. Two years ago, the VFW’s barbecue began sponsoring a bus going to the Walter Reed Medical Center, benefitting returning veterans who were injured at war.

“We’re right here on National Guard property,” said Lehman, “and we’re really fortunate that they’ve let us use it all these years. They maintain the building and supply us with electricity and water, and for no cost.”

That means that every summer, on each Saturday morning, into the afternoon, barbecue fans can be sure to find the jolly cooks, spreading greasy smiles and satisfied bellies through the area.

“It’s a really nice time, and you meet a lot of great people,” said Lynch. “We have a great support from these guys, and you don’t have to ask them twice to do anything. It’s all volunteers, and they love what they do. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have the barbecue to come out to every weekend.