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The Charcoal Grill, the Dallas Cowboys & Cousin Floyd

Floyd at the charcoal grill
Floyd on the charcoal grill

A Charcoal Grill Fireside Chat

by John Raven, Ph.B.

This is about my affair with the charcoal grill. We have been close for about fifty years. I was introduced to the grill by my cousin Floyd.

All this came about because of the Dallas Cowboys. Back in their Glory Days, the Cowboys were quite entertaining. Coach Tom Landry did not put up with much foolishness on the part of the players. I can't remember any of Tom's boys doing rehab.

About once a month Floyd would come down from Dallas to his parent's home in Hutto. My mother and I would travel down to be there. Fairly early on the Sunday morning, Floyd would fire off his grill in the backyard. My grilling experience did not commence until I started watching and assisting Floyd while he cooked the Cowboy game meal.

As best I recall, we started with chickens. Chicken was going for twenty-nine cents a pound back then, and there were usually six to ten hungry souls to feed. Sometimes there were visitors and the count could run up to a dozen.

The chicken ritual was the old accepted method. Salt and pepper half a chicken, put it on the grill and turn it occasionally until it was time to eat. Most of the time the chicken was done by then. Hey, we were just learning the grill, and there was no Justin Wilson on TV to give lessons. The first big breakthrough was using Sprite to baste the chicken during the cooking cycle. The soda pop gave a good taste and kept the skin from turning to leather. From the chicken we graduated to spare ribs. Not much science there -- just salt and pepper and turn them occasionally.

One fateful day, for some reason, we put some summer sausage on the grill. The summer sausage with a glaze of Kraft Hot BBQ sauce was a real treat.

Back at the ranch on non-Hutto Sundays, I started experimenting in my back yard. I did not have a store-bought grill. I had the grill out of an old icebox and two automobile wheels for a pit. It worked just fine except for killing the grass in a neat circle where the pit had been placed. It was a good school for me. There were some grievous errors, but I don't remember having to throw anything away. Most everything can be salvaged.

Between the two of us, Floyd and I have a little over a hundred years of grilling experience. We both still crank off the grill often.

Grilling Lessons Learned

The first experimental step for the grilling was the selection of a sauce. The dipping sauce can make or break a grilled meal. Our first choice in bottled sauce was Kraft's Hot. This was Kraft 's original recipe with something hot added, probably cayenne.

We started trying to enhance the dipping sauce. We came up with a recipe that started with the Kraft Hot and had catsup and onion added, among other things. This was about the best sweet, sour, hot Texas-style sauce I've ever tasted. But alas, the recipe has been lost over the generations. And the flavors of the bottled ingredients have also changed over the years.

One fateful day, for some reason, we put some summer sausage on the grill. Right now we use Meyer's Sauce out of Elgin, Texas. I use the spicy variety; I think Floyd uses the regular. But we still experiment. Here is a sauce Floyd has been playing around with. I like it. It is near North Carolina-style but with sweet added. It's good on nearly everything.

Floyd's Hot & Sweet Sauce

  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 cup hot sauce (I use Louisiana pepper sauce)
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1/2 molasses (Grandma's works fine )
Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Refrigerate in an airtight container for several weeks. The longer the sauce sets the thicker it will get.

Occasionally I want something different in the sauce line getting away from the Texas-style catsup base. My sauce of choice is what I call Texas Blackjack Sauce. This is a thin sauce with a coffee base. My BBQ Buddy Smoky Hale says the blackjack sauce is for preserving fence posts. I had to tell him that is not true; the blackjack eats up fence posts. We just use it for preserving railroad ties and telephone poles.

For me, however, the blackjack does not work on beef. I think it is more for pork and chicken. It has a unique flavor that works with many things, and it is not confined to the grilled food. I like it on vegetables that have been cooked in a pot roast style. After you learn the taste, you can find more applications for it. Here's the recipe:

Texas Blackjack Sauce

  • 1 cup strong, black coffee
  • 1 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup catsup
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup minced hot red chile peppers (or 1 teaspoon cayenne)
  • 8 cloves garlic minced.
Combine all ingredients in saucepan and simmer 25 minutes. Cool, then purée; in blender. Makes 5 cups

Fish and Fowl for the Grill

Floyd, his brother Wayne and I used more than football as an excuse to fire up the grill. A high point of our year was the opening of Mourning Dove season. There were usually lots of the little gray birds in the air at sundown, although we mostly shot holes in the air, but on occasion the birds would cooperate, and we would get enough for a big meal. Wayne, who came onto the grilling scene a little later, had a fancy grill with an electric motor that turned a basket over the charcoal.

He would fill the basket with doves and let them rotate for a couple of hours, all the while applying a baste, the formula of which has been lost. The doves were just flat good. Wayne also did an occasional leg of lamb on the grill. This was rather exotic for us country folk, but it was also really good.

The three of us had our own private recipe that we called Smoked Mud Cat. The mud cat is a small bullhead catfish that can be found in most of the farm ponds in east Williamson County. When nothing else would take the hook, we could always harvest some mud cat. The fish were skinned and rendered into suitable portions to go on the grill. We used a lot of smoke during the cooking process, and mesquite was the wood of choice. The fish did not take long to cook, and they were good. If mud cat were not in season, Channel Cat, Black Bass, White Bass or just plain perch hit the grill.

These were good days in simpler times. Everyone should experience cooperating for a family meal. It makes real good memories.

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