Funding education through food, fun on front burner at Texas rodeo cook off

10:47, February 26, 2011      

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Low fire and slow roast is the recipe for award-winning beef and chicken, and the cooks at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's biggest kickoff event, the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, are fired up by one prime goal.

It's not the fun, food or, for the winners judged as best in their cooking categories, trophies at the end of the third day. The main point is not even to win, though most do a lot of that anyway.

These volunteer cooking teams and their contributors spend hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars to feed more than 220,000 local and international visitors to increase the rodeo's fund for charities and scholarships for public school and university students.

"They're telling me there's over 450 teams out here,"said Sam Nunoz. He is a volunteer with the 78-year-old rodeo, Feb. 18-March 20, one of the most colossal festivals to merge Western agriculture and pop culture.

Mary Price, a 59-year-old Houston legal secretary, has been on the 30-year-old Goody Girls Cooking Team for 22 years. Despite the team name, there are about 25 men who do the actual cooking, while the "girls" are in charge of administration, decor and hospitality.

"Over the years we've gotten so large that we've become a nonprofit organization. Over the past 10 years, we've given out 235,000 U.S. dollars to education scholarships and to the calf scramble kids, where the kids can catch a calf to raise and hopefully earn a scholarship the next year,"Price said. "We also provide scholarships for the students of mechanical agriculture who design machines and tools the farmers and ranchers can use."

Steve George, a nation-wide commercial real estate broker based in Houston and a member of the Noisy Boys cooking team, said the Noisy Boys' pit boss supervises 27 team members who provide the cooking, the drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, security, decorations and hospitality.

"This is the 38th year of the barbecue cook-off and we've been participating 27 of those years,"George said. "We won 8th place last year in the Dutch oven category. That's our highest so far. Low and slow is the key -- a low temperature and a lot of time."

Brett Rhuland, 38, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and district manager for an oil field crane company based in San Antonio, heads the 25-member TAM Squad. "TAM stands for Thrill A Minute,"Rhuland said."Today we're cooking brisket, 40 racks of ribs, sausage, beans, cabbage."

He estimates he and his crew will cook about 750 pounds of food during the three days. Like all the teams, they are volunteers and have sponsorship largely from state and international businesses and individuals who bankroll each team's costs. In addition to the food, expenses can include live bands, dance platforms and fully equipped bars in addition to the team-brand decor and furnishings in the spacious wood or canvas tents that house the cooking parties.

Some of the tents, like the wooden, Western saloon-style exterior of the Bottomless Pit structure, has spent a lot of time on decoration housing the oldest cooking team. Signs boast an " All Nite Tattoo Parlor" and "Saloon: Rooms for Rent: Hourly Rates."

Over the thumping sound of bass drums inside the Turbo Heat tent, where quail and stuffed chicken breast were on the grill, sales engineer for General Electric, Jeff Monk, 38, said he's been on the team for half of his life. His father's company is one of Turbo Heat's three dozen sponsors from companies in Houston and surrounding cities and towns.

Mike Martinez's team, Pony Xpress Puro Tajano, a cooking crew made up solely of Mexican Americans, took third place overall in 2007, the third highest award of the cook off.

"But we don't do it for the trophies," he said. "We do it for the scholarships."

Greg Szanjna, 53, whose corporation has distributes Jack Daniels Old No. 7 and 16 other top-selling brands of alcoholic beverages, has headed the Jack Daniels team as a volunteer. His company is the team's sole sponsor.

The real attraction, however, is the camaraderie among friends and the quality of the food. Several trophies on display attest to the quality of the latter attraction and for "most unique barbecue pit,"said Mike Trapolino, 61, who is in the steel business.

The first two days of the contest are to reward the sponsors and their friends," Trapolino said."In this part of the rodeo, it's 450 private parties."

Mike Hawkins, 59, is co-owner of Prime Time Cookers, one of the most rewarded cooking groups. Their rewards include the best in the state of Texas.

He estimated that when all the money from and for the cook off is paid out and taken in, it will represent a flow of more than 2 million U.S. dollars.

"Four of us in various areas of construction got together and started this. We donate our time to give back to different charities. Tonight, we'll do about 200 pounds of crawfish, 50 pounds of shrimp, then our brisket, chicken ribs," he said. Asked about his secret ingredient or spice rub beyond simple salt, pepper and garlic, he smiled. "That's why it's a secret."

Contributors spend about 20,000 dollars for a minimally decorated tent to more than 100,000 dollars. Even if they place or win the top prize -- best of show -- they receive trophies or simply belt buckles with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo logo, not a single penny. But even with the large output and small physical return, or with the economic downturn in the country's economy, Trapolino doesn't see the cook off tapering off anytime in the future.

"Every year, there are more and more sponsors. And they get younger and younger," he said.

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