The beginning of August means one thing in the Panhandle: it’s time for the XIT Rodeo and Reunion. The annual event in Dalhart—held on the first weekend in August—celebrated its eighty-first year earlier this month. The event, which after its opening year in 1936 was permanently relocated to the northwest corner of the Panhandle, was a way for the cowboys from the original XIT ranch, which ceased operations in the early twentieth century, to get together and share stories. Chuck wagon fare was provided in the early days, but the three nights of rodeo and music are now centered around the “World’s Largest Free Barbecue” on Saturday afternoon. Locals call it “the Feed.”
Photographs by Ted Albracht
Sixty-eight hours before the Feed: Scott Simmons raises the center pole in the barbecue pit as John Bezner—the XIT barbecue director in 2015 and 2016—watches. The pole, which helps gauge the size of the fire, was a thirty-foot tree trunk that survived last year's fire. Wooden numbers designating the reunion anniversary are attached to the top, traditionally with a hat from the barbecue director and panties from his wife are attached to them. This year’s barbecue director, Winston Gilmore, said he only owns one hat and plans to keep it. So what's topping the pole this year? “It’s not my hat, and it’s not her undies,” Gilmore confessed.
Volunteers mix 750 pounds of seasoning—which barbecue director Winston Gilmore says is "salt, pepper, and whatever"—in a horse trough before shoveling it into paper sacks. This will season all the beef shoulder clod that for the barbecue. As barbecue director, a lot of the pressure is on Gilmore, but he doesn’t mind. “I was ecstatic to get the barbecue job,” he said. “It’s a fraternity.”
The XIT brand decorates the Dalhart fairgrounds where the rodeo, reunion, and barbecue takes place. The story of the brand, and the ranch go all the way back to 1881, when a fire destroyed the Texas capitol building. The legislature had to move quickly to get a new one built. The following year they approved a plan to trade 3,000,000 acres of government-owned land in the Panhandle to a group called the Capital Syndicate. In return, the company would build a new building in Austin. The Capitol construction was completed in 1888, and in the meantime, the XIT Ranch was established on the newly acquired land.
On Wednesday afternoon, former XIT barbecue directors mix 40 gallons of Bloody Marys to give out to the volunteer workers. Multiple taste tests are required for quality control, of course. The XIT directors, also volunteers, say that the Bloody Marys are especially popular during the meat wrapping which starts at six a.m. Just before this photo was taken, one of the mixers said, “We have the recipe tattooed on our asses,” offering to show it. Another chimed in with, “Yeah, and he’s the oldest, so he has the original recipe on his!”
Devan Running, Christiana Dickson, Jaci Brown, and Kyra Morgan dig in at the watermelon feed on Thursday, when about 5,000 pounds of free watermelon was fed to the public. Dickson was the 2016 Rodeo Queen, and the others were 2017 contestants. Running went on to win the 2017 Rodeo Queen title.
Fifty-two hours until the Feed: Jarret Bowers, XIT director in 2005, dumps a bucketful of wood—which is collected for the event throughout the year—in the pit. The fire pit is built with a “fence” of cedar logs extending four feet above the pit. Dug fresh from the day before, the pit is then filled with hardwoods like oak, cottonwood, and elm wood. Past director John Bezner recalls a legend about the first barbecue pit dug here in the early forties. Cloys “Boog” Wallace was charged with digging it. “He had gotten in a little scrape with his dad,” Bezner said. “His dad made him dig it by hand. Back then it was four feet wide, four feet deep, and nine feet long. He knew those dimensions exactly by the time he was done.”
Forty hours until the Feed: One thousand gallons of diesel fuel were poured from a tanker truck onto the wood, followed by five hundred gallons of gasoline. The fire was lit from a flaming torch thrown by Gilmore. Despite being up for 22 straight hours, he hit the mark on the first try. (A fire truck was one hand in case of emergency.) Spectators surrounding the pit cheered as the whoosh of the ignition, which former director Don Bowers descried as “a controlled bomb.” The cedar posts burn slower than the wood in the center of the pit, so the fire collapses in on itself overnight. A big rain during the night on the hot coals is always a fear for the barbecue's directors.
Thirty-three hours before the Feed: Almost 10,000 pounds of beef shoulder clods are cut in half and dredged through the seasonings until they’re completely covered. They’re then placed in paper sacks, wrapped in burlap, and tied into bundles with baling wire. The clods are purchased from the massive JBS beef pant in nearby Cactus, Texas. Becky Younger, of Huntington Beach, California (left), John Bezner, Hope Bell and Stewart Rogers (right) are seasoning meat.
Thirty-two hours until the Feed: These beef bundles will be thrown directly into the hot pit, so soaking them in water is important to stave off any fires flaring up in the pit before the lids are placed overtop. After soaking, the meat is loaded into a trailer, covered in ice, and driven over to the pits. They’ll be soaked once more by fire hoses as the beef is prepared to be thrown into the pits. Justin Bell, left, slings a wet, wrapped piece of meat into a trailer as Hayden Wilkerson (right) looks for the next one. In the trailer icing the meat are Colton and Ben Bezner.
Twenty-six hours before the Feed: A huge group of coordinated volunteers throw the meat into the pit at a rapid pace. The pits need to be covered as quickly as possible to cut off the oxygen supply and stop any fires from flaring up. Once all the meat was loaded, a triumphant cry rang out:“Thirty-eight seconds!” Volunteers didn’t have time to congratulate each other on the impressive time, as they immediately had to cover the pits with tin sheets and tons of dirt. It’s essentially the same method used for backyard barbacoa, just on a massive scale.
Inside the appropriately dubbed “Bean Barn,” Jeremy Lenz stirs the first of three pots of beans with a shovel. Once done, they’ll be transferred to plastic-lined trash cans for serving at the feed alongside the beef, apple sauce, and bread.
One hours until the Feed: After the beef has cooked for an entire day, volunteers remove tin roofing from the pit. The dirt was already pushed out of the way by loaders and shovels. The coals were still very hot at this point. Even the earth around the pit was noticeably warmer. Experienced meat fetchers jumped into the pits to retrieve the beef bundles, careful to step on burlap instead of hot coals.
Thirty minutes until the Feed: The barbecue director, by tradition, picks out a bag of meat of his choice for a taste test. Past pranks, such as handing the director a sack of raw beef, have shaken many sleep-deprived directors at this important moment. This year a bundle of turkey was thrown in with the beef, and handed to Gilmore for the taste test. He didn’t fall for it. After a good bite of beef, he signaled his approval— which looked more like relief—then kissed his wife, Brenda. He thanked her for the support during the long weekend, and the rest of the volunteers dove into piles of beef, bread, and pickles served by the pit. All the turkey was eaten too.
Thousands of plates like this one were served this year. The shoulder clod is served with a simple sauce: It’s two parts ketchup and one part Worcestershire sauce, according to Gilmore. David Guest said he prefers a three-to-two ratio “and a tablespoon of mustard,” regardless of the batch size. Having been cooked in the ground in its own juices, the meat tastes nothing like the smoked brisket you might find at a local barbecue joint. The meat is peppery, juicy, and very tender.
The barbecue feed lasted for two hours. In that time an estimated15,455 attendees file through one of twelve serving lines. Bursts of clanging metal rang out as servers pounded the tin roofs above them with pots to attract attention and “customers” to their line, but it’s all free in the end. Beef that isn’t served is sold off to bidders looking to take a chunk home, and some is reserved for folks in a nearby nursing home who can’t make it to the feed. It was hot this year, but thankfully thick clouds from a nearby thunderstorm shaded the fairgrounds just as the feed commenced.