Here’s another story about an activity Paul and I attended in September of 2001 while we were spending an academic year at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
One Saturday afternoon, we decided to sample some of the West Texas culture by attending the 28th World Championship Bar-B-Q Goat Cook-Off in Brady, Texas. Brady claims to be in the EXACT heart of Texas, a fact with which we took no issue. Two weeks earlier, on our way to our niece’s wedding in Austin, we passed through Brady, TX – about 75 miles SW of San Angelo – and saw large banners strung across the main street announcing this annual event. It was sponsored by an organization called the Cowboy Church. An article about the cook-off in the local San Angelo paper convinced us that this was, indeed, a “must attend” event.
Brady is a small ranching community of about 2000 people out in the Texas Outback. About 20,000 people show up to visit this contest every year. Unlike Sister Claudia’s hoity-toity Ugandan Royal Ascot goat races in Africa, in Brady there were no society tents and the fancy hats were optional – not mandatory. The only fancy hats we saw were of the ten-gallon variety and there were an uncountable number of those. I was determined to get one for Paul before we left Texas, even though I really had a hard time imagining Paul in a Stetson. However, after seeing him wear mostly shorts after we arrived in Texas, I supposed anything is possible. Many of you who know Paul well, know he has a penchant for long pants, flannel sheets, down comforters, and wool sweaters even in the summers – so wearing shorts has not been part of his usual wardrobe. But, he’d never lived in a West Texas summer before.
Beginning on Friday afternoon, 127 different goat-cooking teams showed up at the fairgrounds in Brady where they registered, were issued one live goat per team, x-number of pounds of wood, and assigned a camp space large enough to accommodate all their team members, kids, dogs, camping gear, and their “cooker”.
You might think you’ve seen bar-b-q grills before, but let me tell you truly, you’ve NEVER seen anything like one of these customized beauties that each team brought with them. They were custom-built on special trailers with large bins welded onto the back ends. Different kinds of woods were used depending on the flavors they wished to impart to the different kinds of animals they might be cooking. Mesquite, hickory and oak is typically used for beef and goats; apple wood, pecan, and hickory woods are used for pigs, etc. At the contest, however, each team was issued a fixed number of pounds of mesquite so everyone started off with the same ingredients and in the same amounts.
Each team was allowed to use their own secret recipes for basting sauces, seasonings, and bar-b-q sauces. The teams supposedly came from all over the world, but we only saw Texas teams, which gives you an idea of what Texans mean by the term “the world.” Each team’s camp was decorated to beat the band. Some teams consisted of large extended families, and some were just groups of people with other communal bonds of some nature. They all put up clever signs telling everyone who walked by who they were. For example, we saw the 30th Airborne Division team from the Dallas area who brought their cooker – the size and shape of a Minuteman missile, about 45 feet long and poised for launch with its nose in the air on a custom-built trailer. It had several lift-open doors down its side, each large enough to drop an entire goat into – whole.
So before we ate, we continued wandering around the grounds, gaping open-mouthed at all the unique bar-b-q cookers that people had constructed. Many were made from 55-gallon drums, miscellaneous war surplus-looking parts, aircraft fuselages, grain silos, etc. Each had about four-foot tall chimneys welded onto the tops of them to let the smoke out, except for the missile cooker, which cleverly vented its smoke out the nose cone. You could have cooked 20 goats in some of them! One man boasted that he could bar-b-q 200 briskets at the same time in his. Why would you need to do that? There were arts and crafts booths, food stalls, and little kids running around everywhere in ankle-deep mud. Yes, mud! When these Texans all prayed for rain the previous Sunday, they forgot to put some kind of time or amount limit in their prayers. It had rained all week and Friday night, the heavens again poured out another 3 inches of rain. The local creek rose turning the fairgrounds into a quagmire. There were walkways fashioned out of cardboard, wooden pallets, old boards, beer case cartons, etc. It didn’t seem to matter one whit to anyone around there, though, as everyone appeared to be having too much fun to care about all the mud.
One of the booths we looked at was called the “Cowboys Last Ride,” which sold handmade coffins. We had never seen a coffin booth at an arts & crafts fair before. We stopped to look. The coffins were all hand-carved out of beautiful woods – oak, walnut, native Texas pecan (my favorite), traditional pine, etc. They were lined with wool horse blankets instead of satin, and they were absolutely gorgeous. They ranged in price from $475 for the plain pine box to $1725.00 for the hand-carved Texas pecan. They offer to make one up custom using your own design if you like. Their wood-carver was a Cherokee Indian with a degree in Architectural Design. He also built custom furniture and cabinets.
We finally got in the food line at the pavilion about 1:30 in the afternoon, waiting for our big chance to try goat meat. We paid our $6.00 and were issued huge paper plates and we headed on down the buffet line. An apron-clad server heaped huge portions of goat onto our plates along with ranch beans, potato salad, and slices of white bread. White bread seems to be served with everything here in Texas, as are the ranch beans. They had long before run out of bar-b-q sauce. Another server asked us if we wanted Jalapenos (we did) and another person handed us each a cup of ice tea. Off we tottered to find a place to sit down.
The moment had arrived. Neither of us had ever eaten goat meat before, and we were excited and a little apprehensive about whether we would like it. We had been warned at another bar-b-q that goat meat was an “acquired taste” kind of food. We needn’t have worried. We hesitantly tasted the first bites of our meat, and then dug right in. It was delicious! It was similar to a cross between beef and mild lamb. I had expected it to taste like rangy old sheep – greasy and musky. It was neither. We agreed that its wonderful taste probably depended more on the age and quality of the animal that is started with as well as the manor in which it is cooked.
We ended our day by walking around the craft booths a little longer, and then we carefully picked our way back to the parking area, trying to not get any muddier than we already were. Besides the mud and the rains that had drenched that part of Texas, ever since the official ‘Pray for Rain Sunday,’ the large amount of water also caused us to be inundated by a huge plague of field crickets. These are the same black crickets that the Chinese keep in cages in their homes for good luck. However, this being Texas and all, these crickets are HUGE. They could have helped build the pyramids in Egypt! I’m sure these are the ones Moses called down on Pharaoh! And they were EVERYWHERE. Paul says the janitors swept them out of the halls daily by the bushel basket loads At Angelo State University where he was teaching. He was sent an email by the administration apologizing for the large numbers of them and their inability to control them. They chirped from behind his bookcases and swarmed under the chairs and tables in his classrooms. I didn’t mind them at all. I’ve always believed they did bring good luck, but Paul said that the only good luck that would come of them is when they were GONE. Anyway, not a store in San Angelo carried cricket cages, not even the local Pier 1 – because I had looked.
There were other events we had hoped to visit while serving in Texas – one was called the “Oatmeal Festival.” We’d never heard of an oatmeal festival and we were intrigued. Would you visit it in the early morning for breakfast? We surely hadn’t seen any oats growing around West Texas? We then thought maybe “Oatmeal” was a place, but we couldn’t find a place with that name on a Texas map. We never saw any more about it, so I suppose we’ll never know what we missed. And, of course, there was always the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up to look forward to the following spring. We had a lot of fun that year visiting events we’d never dreamed about.