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Johnny & Ponyboy’s Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches

Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden

It is the 45th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.

I admit that it is likely not what comes to mind when we think of good food stories.

With Ponyboy and his brothers, Sodapop and Darry, living alone after their parents’ death, and their gang mostly fighting or trading insults with the rich kids on the other side of town, they’re much more likely to be rustling up trouble than grub.

Still, though, there is a food moment in The Outsiders that has always gotten to me.

barbecue chicken sandwiches with slaw and beans
Photo: Casey Barber

When Johnny stabs a Soc (short for Social—one of the rich kids that make the greasers’ lives hell) who is drowning Ponyboy, the two of them leave Tulsa and run off to Jay Mountain to squat in an abandoned church until their friends can figure out how to keep Johnny out of jail.

On Jay Mountain, away from their friends and families and the role of “greaser” that has so defined them, the boys read Gone With the Wind and watch the sunrise.

The scene inspires Ponyboy to recite Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (1923), giving rise to one of the book’s most iconic lines, when Johnny later tells Ponyboy to “stay gold.”

Into all this sensitive relaxation zooms Dallas Winston, bad boy extraordinaire, to bring them news . . . and bring them to a Dairy Queen.

The Outsiders movie barbecue scene

Maybe it’s partly because of the Coppola film version (1983), in which Ponyboy has barbecue all over his face, but the image of Johnny and Ponyboy shoveling barbecue chicken sandwiches into their mouths after a week of consuming nothing but baloney and cigarettes has always stayed with me.

Is there anything more companionable than friends joyfully eating (in a Thunderbird) and making plans—even if those plans center on the fallout of a stabbing?

barbecue chicken sandwiches with slaw and beans
Photo: Casey Barber

“We stopped at a Dairy Queen and the first thing I got was a Pepsi. Johnny and I gorged on barbecue sandwiches and banana splits.
‘Glory,’ Dallas said, amazed, watching us gulp the stuff down. ‘You don’t need to make like every mouthful’s your last. I got plenty of money. Take it easy. I don’t want you gettin’ sick on me. And I thought I was hungry!’
Johnny merely ate faster. I didn’t slow down until I got a headache” (74).
“Johnny had been quietly finishing his fifth barbecue sandwich, but now he announced: ‘We’re goin’ back and turn ourselves in’ ” (77).

Just like Johnny and Ponyboy are relieved to be able to shove fast food in their faces, in the summer when it’s hot and I’m hungry, I really welcome food that is satisfyingly easy to throw together.

That’s why, for these barbecue chicken sandwiches, I’m taking the fast and easy route with the chicken.

I live in an apartment and don’t have a yard to grill in, so I’m using a roasted chicken from the grocery store, but if you’re lucky enough to grill often, this is a great way to use up that yummy extra barbecue chicken from your weekend cookout (or, perhaps, an impetus to make extra next time).

bbq sauce for barbecue chicken sandwiches
Photo: Casey Barber

Naturally, if neither of these appeal to you, just cook the chicken however you like; the sauce infuses the chicken so completely that you can’t really go wrong.

And, of course, if you’d prefer to do pulled pork or another meat in place of chicken, go for it; the recipe is the same.

barbecue chicken sandwiches with slaw and beans

Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches

Yield: 1 1/2 cups sauce for 4 sandwiches
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

Barbecue chicken sandwiches inspired by the classic novel The Outsiders are easy - you don't even need a grill - and good as gold.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • half a red onion, minced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Liquid Smoke
  • 1-2 tablespoons your favorite hot sauce (depending on how spicy you like it)
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • a dash of sesame oil
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 roasted or rotisserie chicken
  • 4 sandwich rolls

Instructions

Make the BBQ sauce:

  1. Heat the oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pan such as a Dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Stir in the onion and cook for about 5 minutes until soft and starting to caramelize. 
  3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the garlic. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, until aromatic.
  4. Stir in the bourbon and cook for 1-2 minutes more until the bubbles subside and the bourbon has almost evaporated.
  5. Add the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Liquid Smoke, hot sauce, maple syrup, mustard, and sesame oil. 
  6. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes or so, stirring often so it doesn’t burn. 
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste. If your sauce is too thick, add some water a little at the time; it should be about the consistency of ketchup.
  8. After your delicious barbecue sauce is cooked and seasoned to your liking, turn off the heat. 

Assemble the sandwiches:

  1. While the sauce simmers, shred the meat from the roasted chicken (save the carcass for chicken stock).
  2. Stir the chicken into the sauce.
  3. Turn the heat back on for a few minutes and cook to let the flavors come together, stirring so the mixture doesn’t stick.
  4. Finally, prepare your sandwich however you’d like: with slaw, pickles, lettuce, tomato, or just plain on the bun.
  5. Stay gold, my friends. Stay gold.

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