Rep. John Lewis’ other legacy: barbecued chicken

Oven-baked barbecued chicken was a favorite that the late John Lewis made in a large pan at Christmastime. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Bob Townsend

Credit: Bob Townsend

Oven-baked barbecued chicken was a favorite that the late John Lewis made in a large pan at Christmastime. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The world mourned when U.S. Rep. John Lewis died July 17, in the midst of a year like no other.

But, those of us who revered the civil rights icon could find hope and courage in the example he set with his heroic deeds, through what he called “good trouble.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis is seen in 2019 in front of an exhibit, "John Lewis — Good Trouble," in the atrium of the domestic terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. Alyssa Pointer/

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

I like to remember that, after I first moved to Atlanta in 1986, I had the privilege of voting for Lewis when he first was elected to Congress. He served 17 terms, and, over that time, it always was reassuring to see him out and about, pressing the flesh, having a word with his constituents.

My final memory of Lewis was a magical one — especially in retrospect — because it occurred prior to the pandemic.

I was waiting for a to-go order at Home Grown, on Memorial Drive in Reynoldstown, when I looked up and saw him methodically moving through the lunchtime crowd. From my seat on the bench by the door, it seemed like he shook every hand in the place. And, as he posed for photos, the affection for the man and the power of his journey were palpable.

My order came out, but I stayed put, waiting to shake his hand, too. As it turned out, I was able to hold the door for him as he exited toward the parking lot with his aide. “It’s great to see you, Congressman,” I said. “It’s great to see you, brother,” Lewis replied.

I was reminded of that moment when I recently received a note with a clipping from a loyal reader of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Food section.

The late Congressman John Lewis had a holiday chicken recipe he made annually for family and guests, dating back to the year he was married, 1968. He shared it with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December, 1995.

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Sally Lord, 80, lives in Atlanta with her husband of 63 years, Buck. She wrote: “While going through some old recipes, I found this in a stack of Atlanta Journal recipes. I love to share recipes, so I hope you enjoy this one.”

It turned out that oven-baked barbecued chicken was a recipe from John Lewis that ran as part of a holiday roundup in December, 1995. I enjoyed the story Lewis told about impressing his wife, Lillian, with the dish:

“I don’t want to brag,” says Lewis with unpolitician-like modesty. “But a lot of people have told me it’s pretty good.”

Oh, c’mon, you can brag.

“Well,” he says cautiously, “it does tend to smell very good.”

He’s talking about his oven-baked barbecued chicken, which he’s been serving to guests at holiday get-togethers for decades. Since 1968, in fact. In that year, Lewis holds one day dear: Dec. 21, when he and wife Lillian were married. “It was just before Christmas,” he says, “and I was trying to show my wife I could cook.” It must have done the trick.

Lewis notes that he likes to use a very large pan, so he can place pieces (you can use all wings, breasts or legs instead of the whole cut-up chicken) in a single layer. This year, the Lewises will be celebrating Christmas in Atlanta, and, as usual, John will be making the chicken, Lillian will be fixing potato salad or rice and string beans, and the guests will be clamoring for more.

When I phoned Lord, she told me she’d just cooked the recipe, again. Lord likes to use store-bought barbecue sauce, and makes it with legs and thighs.

“It’s such an easy, easy recipe, and I think that’s why it’s so good,” she said. “It’s wonderful. You can also put some rice right in with the chicken and do them together. I think it goes with the sauce.”

Asked if she’d ever met Lewis, Lord said, no, but she “followed him,” because they were the same age.

“I read politics, and we take The Atlanta Journal, and The Wall Street Journal,” she noted. “Most people get everything online. But, being 80 and 84, we like to sit down and read the papers.”

Sally Lord, seen here with her husband, Buck, shared John Lewis' barbecued chicken recipe that she saved from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Sally and Buck Lord

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