No time to ease in. It’s 3:30 in the morning. Means we’ve got three hours to collect the cooking grease that’s been used so far at the 2014 Texas State Fair, which, if last year’s numbers hold—attendees spent $37.1 million in food, game, and ride coupons—means there’ve been hungry hordes hankering for fried goodness. Oil drums of old grease sit in forty locations, two to three drums at each spot. In them is three days’ worth of oil for fried sriracha balls, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried pork chops, fried brisket, fried butter, fried ice cream, french fries, onion rings, corn dogs, funnel cakes, fried everything. The best fried foods America has to offer. And then we “get our ass out of there,” says Jerry Duty, owner of Grease Monster Recycling, licensed hauler of used cooking oil “as mandated by the Texas Department of State Health Services.” We gotta clear our asses out before the crowds arrive. It’s game day. The Red River Showdown. Fairground’s going to be extra busy. Oh, and it’s raining. Mud ponds form around food tents whose lights shine on, reflecting off cleared, cleaned stainless steel tables. It’s going to be hard trying to keep up with Jerry.
Jerry is 56. He has a face like Robin Williams (RIP): pudgy with beady, sparkling eyes. His arms, though, would shame a 26-year-old gym rat. They’re muscle folded into muscle, like the limbs of a bull. A lifetime of rolling grease drums that weigh between 350 and 400 pounds will do that. Explains his butt too. Enviable, if you like that kind of thing on a man. His wife probably likes it. She definitely likes dancing. Jerry, not so much. But he doesn’t mind if she dances with other people when they go out. “She’s a looker,” so men often ask for a dance. “If my wife was a barrel, I could dance,” he says, two-stepping another drum into the truck bed.
Since I’ve never been to the state fair at 3:30 in the morning, I don’t really know where we are. Jerry claims he doesn’t know either. “This fair is like a maze,” he tells me. “I couldn’t even tell right now which direction we’re heading. I’m really good with east, north, west, but right now, I’m not so sure.” Jerry may not know the direction, but he knows where he’s going. He backs the truck up—beep-beep-beep—to another collection spot, jumps out wearing his yellow poncho jacket and headlamp, hustles to a barrel, and peers in. If it’s full of used grease, he throws plastic sheeting over the top and seals the drum with a metal ring that, when approaching the barrels, Jerry sometimes swings two-by-two as if he were a sideshow magician. Jerry tips the barrel on its edge, expertly spinning the whole thing, one hand over the other, as easily as it if it was the steering wheel of a Cadillac. Spin, spin, spin, spin, spin. Ten, twenty, fifty feet through grass and mud. Down comes the truck’s hydraulic tailgate, and Jerry switches out the full drum for an empty. Spin, spin, spin, spin, replacing the old barrel with the fresh one. He’s not out breath but he breathes heavy, only audible when he wastes a moment to speak.
The rain comes down harder and harder at every new stop. “Go look at those barrels,” he says to me, not really a suggestion or a command, just something that gets told to an extra pair of hands during an early morning job that has to be finished in a few hours. He might not replace a barrel if it’s half full, Jerry says, “but if somebody tips it over you’re thinking damn it.” So I lift the grease-coated lid, but without gloves like Jerry’s—thick, black rubber ones that go up the forearm—my fingers are immediately slimy. I peer inside. Nearly full. A red-checked paper food tray and a white napkin float at the top. The greasy tableau looks like a tiny sailboat with a storm-torn mast. “No, no,” Jerry says. “I’ll take that barrel. If it gets dropped and makes a mess, damn it.” At the truck, he has me pull the hydraulic tailgate nob. This’ll be my main job for most of the morning although once or twice, Jerry’ll ask for the wrench—an eighteen-inch-long crank that seals the ring—before handing it back, wordlessly, instinctively, after he’s finished. A common trait among handymen with sons. Load the drum and get back in the truck. Again, all without much of a word being said. Just try and keep up.
Jerry only paused twice that morning, roughly half a second each time. The first time, he pointed at the open grease barrel. “You smell that?” I do. Jerry, too, takes a sniff. “Smells sweet. Clean cooking oil. Probably funnel cake.” Some grease barrels are cleaner than others. “Like Fletcher’s Corn Dogs. Real clean,” Jerry says. “They just got it down where they don’t lose any batter. Other places, they got stuff in the cornmeal or water that’ll lose a lot of it in the fryer and it winds up in these drums.” Grilled chicken drippings are pretty bad; so, too, is turkey leg jelly.
We pull up to one stand advertising fried boudin balls, fried jambalaya, fried ribs, fried alligator, fried shrimp, and other golden-brown delicacies. “This one’s going to be a bitch,” Jerry grumbles. In the back, past a mud pond and soggy grass are five barrels, three ready to collect. Most of it is from the Big Tex Choice winner for “Best Tasting,” Clint Probst (for the fried gulf shrimp boil). Whoever wins the awards always ends up having more customers. More customers, more grease.
Jerry paused once more when I exclaimed, “There’s Big Tex!” I couldn’t help myself. Looking up at Big Tex, everyone turns into a little kid “He comes alive at night,” Jerry says, staring up at that stupid grin. “I would just love it if someday, we’re out here at this time of day, picking up grease, and hear, ‘How are you boys doin’ down there?’” Just before Jerry starts moving again, half a second later, he says, “If you want a picture, now’s the time,” but that time passes before I have a chance to remember that I forgot the camera.
Jerry has one barrel down at the winner’s stand when a truck with a 600-gallon-capacity tank on the back suddenly pulls up. Out jumps the owner of Jim’s Duty Grease Service. His name’s not Jim, it’s Gordon, and he’s Jerry’s younger brother. Jim was their dad. From the passenger side springs Jerry’s son Jerry Jr., known on the job as “JD.”
Gordon starts sentences with “Hey, brother” and end them with “yes, sir.” Jerry Sr. says Gordon is the strongest. Super strong. Unbelievably strong. Gordon moves even faster than Jerry, snatching a barrel from him and rolling it right on the truck. Meanwhile, JD pulls the tank’s hose back to the sinking grass behind the tent and sucks all the grease from two barrels. The grease disappears silently, until it sluuurps at the bottom where the turkey jelly lies. Takes less than a minute.
“There was a lot more [grease] than we anticipated,” says Gordon, a lit cigarette hanging from his lips. Too fast, too experienced, for the cigarette to get wet.
Four generations of Dutys have been greasers. Their grandfather and great uncles collected grease in Dallas back when it was just lard. “They hauled a lot of tin, five-gallon buckets in just an old pick-up,” says Jerry. Grandfather Duty sired four sons, and Jerry’s father did some grease work here and there. The third generation—Jim, Gordon, Jerry—carried on the family business. Grease is profitable and recyclable, same as it was then as it is now. “They [used to] just coat the animal feed with the grease, to fatten them up.” Still do, but “when these biodiesels came out, grease became more of an interest to people.”
The Duty family has been loading grease for the State Fair of Texas for twenty years. Several years back, Jerry was working grocery retail. He also started a pizza joint that eventually flopped. After that, Jerry returned to the family business three years ago, starting Grease Monster with his paternal cousin Roy. Meanwhile Gordon, who’d taken over their father’s business, carried the torch at the fair for about ten years before turning to Jerry for some help. “The last couple of years, we’ve just kind of done this together.” So each family member had their own grease operation. They never did put all their grease operations in one barrel.
From the truck bed, Jerry asks Gordon if he wants to take some plastic sheeting and metal rings so Gordon and JD can come behind to “bag ’em and tag ’em.”
“Whatever you want, brother,” says Gordon, scurrying back to the driver’s side and adding, over his shoulder, “Take your time, no rush,” before jumping in, slamming the door, driving off.
Not all the barrels will get collected. Simply can’t get some until the fair is over, so they just keep adding empties to those collection spots. JD is tasked with moving those empties. Scooting forty pounds one hundred feet or more. He’s not as good as the older Dutys at moving the heavies. Before signing on with the family business, JD was a mechanic.
Around five a.m. people begin emerging from dark corners. Just in front of the Super Midway is Jack’s French Frys with Jack standing inside. He looks like a Texan. A cherub Tommy Lee Jones. Or a Tommy Lee Jones that doesn’t hate people. “You should do a story on Jack,” Jerry says. So, okay, here it is: Jack rents out a lot of the tents at the fair, is 65 but with his craggy face and white hair, looks older, although he still skydives (“three hundred to four hundred times a year,” according to Jerry, which sounds a bit high). Back in the sixties, Jack used to work at a Georgia Six Flags, acting as a cowboy in an Old West shootout, except he actually was shot after someone unloaded a fake six-shooter at him and one of the blanks nailed Jack in the belly, requiring the removal of his appendix. At first they thought he was just sore because after being shot he had, on cue and like the professional he is, fallen off the roof. “He’s a real character,” says Jerry as we wave goodbye to Jack.
A bit after six a.m. the fairground is starting to wake up, filling up with the “trash trucks, grease guys, and the shit pumpers.” Even with small trucks, trying to maneuver around all the bubbling commotion is getting difficult for the grease guys. The job’s near done, and thank God because I’m pretty well soaked and worn out just from watching the Dutys work. At one of the very last stops, just after they’ve finished a switch-out, a young man walks up with a pail full of grease and dumps the contents into the empty barrel. The sight of a new job starting before the last is even finished breaks one’s tired little heart.
And then, it’s over. Grease Monster is on track to collecting more grease than last year. That number was 8,400 gallons, 5,460 of which was grease the processing facility actually bought. The other 2,940 was waste, a.k.a. MIU (“moisture, impurities, unsaleable”). Driving toward the entrance, Jerry recalls how the fair used to look back when he was a little boy: dirt and freaks. “A good ol’ freak show. A real freak show.” Back when you played the games with fifty-cent pieces.
“Now you can’t go see a bearded lady or a sword swallower. Or the barker.”
Maybe. But the fair’s still one of the greatest shows on earth. Especially at three a.m. That’s when the strongman goes to work. Just try to keep up.