Weirton Chicken Blast tradition lives on
WEIRTON — From the recipe to the volunteers, there’s a lot of tradition and history behind the “Chicken Blasts” held during the summer.
A visit off Kings Creek Road to the Serbian Picnic Grounds of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church is proof of that.
That’s where the Serbian Men’s Club representatives can fill in first-time visitors or remind returning ones about some facts and figures related to their time-honored fundraiser on the church’s behalf.
Take, for instance, when they got started — the consensus being 1968, although Mark Zatezalo adds a year to that. “It was 1969,” he says, explaining that his uncle, Nick Zatezalo, is the lone survivor of three Nicks who were founders of the fundraiser that cooks and sells whole chickens for $8 every Wednesday. The other two were Nick Karas and Nick Barber.
Either way, the one-year difference puts “Chicken Blasts” at the 50-year mark.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 18,” Mark said as one of many longtime volunteers constituting a generational presence.
People who want to buy chickens generally know the drill, but if not, it’s specific.
Call (304) 748-9866 on Wednesdays between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Period. Chickens must be picked up by 6 p.m. on the day they’re ordered at the Serbian Picnic Grounds, located at 36 S. Kings Creek Road in Weirton, or else, buck buck, you’re out of luck.
The chickens are ready by late morning, and so are patrons’ appetites for the hearth-cooked, slow-roasted poultry.
Some take their chickens home; others eat on the premises in the spacious pavilion, where they’ll have a picnic.
Other fare available includes corn on the cob, haluski (cabbage and noodles) and homemade cherry and apple strudel. The church choir prepares and handles those concessions, according to Nino Karas, the church’s choir director and son of the late Nick Karas.
There’s also Steubenville Bakery bread and flatbread.
And beer on tap, a serving post assumed by 91-year-old Al Goykovich, who has the distinction of being the eldest volunteer on the premises. He’s been a volunteer “forever,” he notes in response to the question. “It’s a lot of fun, and it keeps you young.”
The picnic hours are from noon to 9 p.m. with last call at 8 p.m. As many as a hundred people might come to eat on the premises during the course of the day, many bringing picnic baskets with additional sides and desserts.
But before it’s picnic time, it’s chicken cooking time, and that starts early.
John Kosanovich has been a second-generation volunteer since 1986. “We start on the last Wednesday in May, and we go to the last Wednesday in August,” he said. Only two “Chicken Blasts” remain for the 2019 season — tomorrow and Aug. 29.
About 15 to 17 guys come each week to help, arriving as early as 5:30 a.m. Roughly 330 chickens are cooked on any given Wednesday morning, close to 4,500 during the summer, he explained.
What does Kosanovich like about being involved? “It’s tradition,” he said. “Our men’s club maintains the picnic grounds. If they need maintenance work here, we take care of it. We’re a nonprofit organization, and we’re affiliated with the church, and any male member of the church can be a member. We have other events like the church picnic or when somebody rents the hall or picnic grounds.”
The preparation begins with adherence to a simple recipe, seasoning them with salt and pepper. Twenty-five chickens can be placed on one pole, and five poles can be placed on both sides of one hearth. There are two hearths. The math notes one side of a hearth can accommodate 125 chickens; both hearths, 500 if need be.
The salt-and-pepper “secret recipe” tends to foster disbelief.
Mark Zatezalo explained: “One fellow came to one of the guys and said, ‘What do you put on this chicken?’ ‘Well, really just salt and pepper.’ The guy said, ‘Cut it out — quit lying to me. If you can’t tell me, just say you can’t tell me, but don’t lie.’ He said, ‘OK, I can’t tell you,’ and the guy said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.”
The chicken cooking is a process volunteers have down to a combined reflex, if not a science. A finished pole of chicken is greeted by ready hands that pull them off and wrap them in foil. One pole that comes off the fire quickly gets a replacement.
Steve Zatezalo, son of “Chicken George” Zatezalo, has a hot job, monitoring the chicken’s progress.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy this,” he said, beads of sweat on his face. “I’ve been doing this since I was 12 or 13. My dad was involved, so we came over here to work, and half of the kids in the neighborhood used to come. There’s been a long cast of characters here,” he said.
“Back in the day in the ’80s when the mill was booming, we’d do 600 to 700 chickens and sell 10 to 12 kegs of beer,” Steve said, “adding, “It’s just something that we enjoy.”
Why the fundraiser is held on Wednesdays is a point of history as much as anything.
Ted Zatezalo, the president of the Serbian Men’s Club, said the church had the facilities to do the chicken blasts so the founders decided to give it a try.
“When they first started doing it, they couldn’t sell a pole of chickens,” he said. But ultimately, it caught on, and Wednesdays was a good consumer day in steel mill times. “They started it on Wednesdays, because the steel works got paid on Wednesday, and the following Wednesday, the tin mill got paid,” he said.
Involved in the “Chicken Blast” since 1972, he credits its longevity to camaraderie and tradition.
And community support, also evident in general use of the facilities.
The Serbian picnic in July, for example, involved cooking 22 lambs and 175 chickens. “In the old days the most I remember doing is 56 lambs,” he said.
Jon Greiner and Gary Stanich are Weir High School graduates from the Class of 1965. Both are more so newcomers at the five- and seven-year mark, respectively.
Greiner got involved at Stanich’s encouragement. Stanich had volunteering on his radar after retiring, but also because his father, the late Rudolph “Rudy” Stanich had been a “Chicken Blast” stalwart.
“I like being involved because of the guys, it’s fun, it’s nice meeting the people who are coming up,” Stanich said. “We have a lot of steady customers, they’re very nice people, you get to see the community, you rarely get anybody who’s not very pleasant.”
“I like being with the guys and volunteering, doing some good for the men’s club,” Greiner said. “It’s enjoyable even though you have to get up at 5 a.m.”
Fourteen Wednesdays is enough, according to Greiner.
“We’ve been lucky this year. It hasn’t been cold in the morning, and it hasn’t rained a whole lot. We get steady customers — they’ll come up, and they’ll start complaining to stay open longer. One fellow who comes here, at the end of the year, he orders 10 chickens to keep through the winter time,” he said.
The events are as much tradition for the volunteers as the customers.
Weir High football Coach Tony Filberto said tradition dictates on the second Wednesday in August to bring the coaching staff to the “Chicken Blast.”
“It’s a special place, we’re treated well, and you can’t find any better chicken anywhere.”