Later today, after the inauguration of Greg Abbott as the forty-eighth governor of Texas, 17,000 hungry ticket holders clamoring for food will line up for lunch on the Capitol grounds in Austin. Forty-five minutes later, they’ll all have a full plate of barbecue. At least that’s what mega-caterer Eddie Deen has promised the governor-elect.
And Deen will likely make good on this pledge. Because he’s old hat at serving big crowds. More specifically, big crowds gathered for just such an event—he’s been the man trusted by governors since 1995 to cook for their inauguration celebration.
Deen’s involvement can be traced back to Dallas oil baron Ray Hunt. No, he wasn’t ever a governor, but he used Deen plenty to cater parties and events at his offices in Dallas’s Fountain Place. George W. Bush, who knew the Hunts, heard about Deen’s skill for serving the masses and invited the caterer to Austin in 1995 to audition against seven others for the chance to serve barbecue at his inauguration. As Deen remembers it, “My bid was actually the highest, but I could explain to them how I was going to execute it.” No one wants a hungry horde roaming the Capitol grounds, and Deen made the case that this event’s success was just as much about line speed as it was about the quality of the barbecue. He served 14,000 people in 45 minutes and hasn’t had to audition for the part since.
Serving barbecue at political gatherings has been a long tradition in Texas history, but it being the inauguration meal dates back to populist W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
Pappy knew how to throw a party and didn’t much care if the festivities matched the nation’s economic outlook. When he was first sworn in as the state’s governor in 1939, the country was just emerging from the Depression. Instead of a low-key affair, 60,000 people (and 37 marching bands!) filled UT’s Memorial Stadium to watch O’Daniel take his oath of office. Two years later he was invited back to the Governor’s Mansion by the voters and did more than provide entertainment. He gave them barbecue.
Instead of hiring a catering company he had a huge trench dug into the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion (see top photo) where all the barbecue would be cooked. The barbecue committee was chaired by O. P. Lockhart. He owned Lockhart’s Federal Bakery on Congress Avenue a few blocks down from the Capitol building in Austin. Lockhart facilitated all the food acquisition for the party, but it was Rex Fowler, captain of detectives in the Austin police department, directed the cooking, but he had help. The Dallas Morning News reported that “Negroes in white jackets and aprons rushed to and fro turning huge hunks of beef, mutton, and buffalo.”
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said it was the “biggest thing of its kind ever seen in these parts.” After the celebration, the paper took stock of the numbers. People were served 40,000 pounds of meat from 180 tables set up on the street in front of the mansion. How the buffalo tasted (shot by O’Daniel himself on the Kerrville ranch of William F. Morgan) nobody knows for sure. The Star-Telegram noted that “there was no label on the meat served,” and that “the rumor got out that the buffalo wouldn’t be fit to eat” because it wasn’t done.
Deen won’t be dishing out any buffalo today, but the sheer volume of meat coming off of the pit is impressive. There’ll be a mile of sausage, 4,000 pounds of chicken, and an estimated 800 briskets. Deen will smoke those briskets at his commissary in Terrell, outside of Dallas. You won’t find the facility easily because there isn’t a sign anywhere on the building. Inside there’s a collection of huge smokers. A couple rotisseries built into the wall sit mostly unused, but the two Oyler rotisseries in the middle of the room churn with racks full of brisket. They were chilled and packed for travel to Austin, and will be warmed up on the inauguration site. Chicken and sausage will be cooked on mobile smokers hauled down to the Capitol.
January weather in Austin can be fickle. Deen remembers the bitter cold of 2007 just after Rick Perry’s second successful election. So few people came out for the celebration that they couldn’t give all the brisket away. “[It]was so cold we fed more homeless people than those coming for the inauguration.” This year will be different, with temperatures forecast to be in the seventies.
If you want some for yourself, you only have a little time to get to downtown Austin. While Pappy O’Daniel fed the people for free (he was a populist after all), tickets now set you back $10 per plate.
Main photo: W. Lee O’Daniel at Barbecue, Photograph, January 21, 1941; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth354725/ : accessed January 18, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting McAllen Public Library, McAllen, Texas.