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October 27, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Bug Juice Chicken recipe: families still buggin’ cooks for it

Corrected version

If you’ve been following this blog as long as I’ve been writing it, you know how much I like to cook chicken. I’ve shown you how I roast it, smoke it, fry it, stew it and spice it up. But unlike so many of my readers, I’ve never marinated it in “bug juice” — a recipe made famous by my Edmonds neighbor, retired Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist John Owen.

Yeah, I got the bug. Active prep time? Less than 5 minutes. Fast, easy, inexpensive and did I mention delicious? [photo: Nancy Leson]

Fans of Owen’s “Intermediate Eater” column and the various cookbooks published under that name raved about his simple recipe after reading my last two Wednesday print columns (read those here, and here). This rave, sent via a blog-comment from a reader in Pullman, sold me on the recipe:

“My mother, now 97, plucked a copy of John Owens’s book, The Intermediate Eater from the waste bin of the Seattle book bindery where she worked, sometime in the early ’70’s. The cover had been damaged by the machinery. This became my very first personal cookbook. I have served the Bug Juice Chicken to my fellow starving college students, to campers in Glacier National Park, and on several unfortunate sad occasions, to families confronted by sudden illness or death. It can be prepared for pennies, pleases and soothes the weary, and is a great platform for innovation as needed or desired. These days I use fresh garlic, fresh grated white onion, a dollop of honey, and a pinch of red pepper flakes.”

Prepared for pennies? Pleases and soothes the weary? A great platform for innovation? Well, you know what I had to do, right?

I called Owen to get his take on his popular Bug Juice Chicken recipe, which he believes first ran with his byline in the P-I around 1966 — though you may find it online from other sources today. He and his wife, Alice, still make it for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As for the name? Owen, 82, explains that when he was a kid growing up in Montana, his family frequented a Chinese restaurant in Bozeman. Chinese food was the height of exotica back then, he says. On the table, “there was always this jar of black, evil-looking liquid. My dad called it `bug juice.'”

It was, in fact, soy sauce. Each time they’d visit, his father would ceremoniously hoist a soup spoon, fill it with “bug juice” and suck it down. Meanwhile, Owen and his sister “would croak and fall heavily to the floor cross-eyed, clutching our throats.” Here’s my slightly tweaked version of his recipe.

Bug Juice Chicken

[serves four, easily doubled for a crowd]


1 cut-up fryer chicken or 6 to 8 thighs (I used bone-in skin-on thighs)

1/3-cup soy sauce (I used low-sodium soy sauce)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon each: onion powder, garlic powder, ground ginger, poultry seasoning

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees

1) Whisk soy sauce, lemon juice and spices together in a measuring cup or small bowl.

2) Rinse and pat dry chicken parts, then arrange in a baking pan.

3) Pour soy sauce mixture over the chicken and flip the parts twice.

4) Bake skin side up for approximately 45 minutes (or until internal temperature reaches 165-degrees), basting twice.

The first time I prepared this, I made two batches using eight thighs. Just for science, I marinated half using the original recipe, which relies heavily on the spice rack, and the other half using fresh onion, garlic, ginger and a mix of fresh and dried herbs and spices.

Ready for the oven: spice-rack version (foreground), fancy-pants version (rear). [photo: Nancy Leson]

Ever wonder what’s in poultry seasoning? The Kroger brand I bought lists thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and nutmeg, so I pinched, minced and Microplaned accordingly, if a tad heavily. Next, I marinated the chicken for several hours in the fridge, turning once in the marinade. The results were negligibly different, save for the ugly burnt bits on top of the my more contemporary version when the baking was through.

That gorgeous burnished chicken photo up top? Prepared this morning, just as Owen suggests, with no marinating time at all: the soy and lemon flavors were prominent, and it now goes straight to the top of my “quick-fix” recipe file. Thanks, John!

Information in this article, published 10/27/11, has been corrected. I previously omitted 1/4 teaspoon of ginger, and the baking temperature: it’s 375 degrees.

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