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Pit Boys 

The story of a cowboy barbecue

click to enlarge Tarps are spread over the smoking covered barbecue pits at the Fortuna Rodeo.

Mark McKenna

Tarps are spread over the smoking covered barbecue pits at the Fortuna Rodeo.


"I'm gettin' bloody here!"

The meat arrives

It's 7:25 on a foggy Fortuna morning and it's quiet but for the beep, beep, beeping of the Ayers delivery truck reversing alongside the volunteer fire department. The driver parks and, using a hydraulic lift, removes 47 cardboard cases of beef from the back of his truck.

Don Jacobsen tears open a case, pulls out a large hunk and inspects it with the eye of a connoisseur. A retired meat cutter, Jacobsen has volunteered at the Fortuna Rodeo Barbecue since 1963. That's 53 years. Folks say he's the master of the deep pit barbecue.

The beef passes Jacobsen's muster, and the team of 12 assembled volunteers works fast, unpacking the 3,979 pounds of meat, (the approximate weight of two Volkswagen Bugs). Under the direction of barbecue committee co-chairs Dave Nicholson and Robb Foley, everyone jumps in to help. The barbecue team has been working together for years; decades even. They've got this down.

Even so, it's a messy scene. Jacobsen's grandson Jake Trotter slices open the plastic wrappers and stacks 188 XT shoulder clods on foldaway tables set up in the fire department parking lot. Blood pools on the asphalt. The roasts, which are the best choice for the barbecue because of their large, consistent size, good price and lean composition, are first bathed in a tray of Carlo Rossi Rhine, then passed to the next station, where they're rolled in a powdery, moss-colored, top secret special seasoning and repacked into cases.

The contents of the top secret special seasoning are, of course, classified. Tom Head, who concocted the blend, was suspected to be out fishing and thus couldn't be reached for comment or hassled for particulars. But the recipe has been in his family for generations. The 90 pounds of coveted goodness is stored matter of factly in a Gott beverage cooler.

Only with the beef seasoned, tucked back into its cases and stashed in a refrigerated truck borrowed from Humboldt Creamery, does the crew pop open a few celebratory cans of America (aka, Budweiser). The guys seem pleased at a job well done, and the parking lot hums with contented banter and jocular hassling.

Larry Tucker, former fireman, rodeo man, businessman and Little League coach, is holding court at the back of a truck. He strikes a supervisory pose in his straw cowboy hat and pointy boots and exclaims, "I've been doing this since 1964." Holding a coffee cup in a hand that will soon hold a can of beer, he explains that he won't be there to light the pits later this afternoon because he's done that enough years. Instead, he's heading over to the rodeo grounds for the Bull-o-Rama and the Bronco Riding.

Rodeo has been in full swing all week, starting with Monday's Chili Cook-off. Last night was the Diesel Truck Tug-of-War and the Quad Barrel Racing. But the rodeo crescendo is surely Sunday's barbecue, the icing on the cake, or the Carlo Rossi on the beef, of rodeo week.

By 10 o'clock Saturday morning, the sun begins to burn through the fog and the seasoning volunteers disperse. Everything is taken care of until the 4 p.m. pit lighting. Empty lawn chairs line Main Street in anticipation of the noon parade. Rotarians linger alongside festooned trucks and a clown drives past in a VW bus. Over at the rodeo grounds, the Kiwanis pancake breakfast is wrapping up and the spindly, garish carnival rides are unmoving. Horses swish their tails in the sunshine while their riders top up on coffee, readying for the day.

"We're gonna need more special sauce."

Lighting the deep pits

The rodeo caller's bombastic voice swims in the background as Nicholson and crew prep to set some stuff on fire. With a deep pit barbecue, the initial fire is key. Nicholson whips out a 5-gallon jug of diesel and a few road flares. "Time to sauce 'em up good!" he hollers with all the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old boy about to do something naughty.

Wood pallets and seasoned black oak from the Hunt Ranch up in Bridgeville are loaded evenly across the bottom of the three brick-lined pits, which are about 3-by-5 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Black oak is used not for any flavoring goals, but because it makes a dense, reliable bed of coals. Nicholson and Jacobsen scrutinize the scenario. It's windy out, and they hope they don't set fire to the new streetlamp installed directly overhead. The fires are hesitant to start, so Nicholson heads over to Renner to pick up more diesel. He returns and administers a fresh helping of fuel to the pits, and the flames whoosh high into the air. "That's how it's supposed to be!" he exclaims triumphantly.

Ignition accomplished, the volunteers treat themselves to a soda and settle in for the long night ahead.They'll keep the plywood pit lids sprayed down with water and add firewood in alternating directions every hour until 11 p.m., careful to fill in all gaps in order to establish a thick, uniform foundation. Nicholson explains, "Each load is crucial to get the correct depth of coals."

The late afternoon air is charged, and a steady crowd streams past the pits toward the parking lot. Sleepy kids grasping steamy bags of cotton candy are shuttled by on sunburnt shoulders. A cowboy on a cellphone leans over the chain-link fence to hassle the barbecue crew and buy a ticket for tomorrow's feast. The occasional sweaty, kinda-drunk rodeo spectator lollops past in short shorts and high-heeled boots. For all that people watching, the pit crew has the best seat in the house.

"At least his beard didn't get singed."

The meat goes on

The wives and daughters of the late night crew bring chairs and make sure everybody gets fed. A table is overflowing with snacks and drinks, and hot dogs cooked over the mounting pile of embers. Conversation is hushed, contemplative. It's almost 1 a.m.

As planned, the last load of wood went on a couple of hours ago, and the coals are burning white hot. "Put your hand over here," someone says, and it's hard to imagine the fires getting any hotter.

Nicholson sidles up. "The barbecue committee could not have a barbecue without these people," he says, looking around at the group assembled by the fire. "They are the backbone."

"My kids were raised between the fire pit and the rodeo ground." adds Karen Jacobsen, Don's wife. Her daughter, now grown, is there to help, as are her sons-in-law and a collection of grandchildren. Karen explains that the rodeo barbecue crew is made up of about 40 volunteers who step in for various tasks over the course of the weekend. The meat crew is made up of friends and family, but mostly it's meat cutters, or retired meat cutters, from local markets.

With only seven years spent on the barbecue crew, Scott Fowler is a relative newcomer. Whatever he may lack in experience, though, he makes up for with enthusiasm. More of a surfer than a cowboy, Fowler says he loves helping with the barbecue. "I look forward to it all year, then, Sunday evening, when it's over, I'm like, 'Goshdarnit, I gotta wait a whole year to do it again!'"

Right around 1 a.m., Fowler pulls on borrowed fire department turnouts and places iron bars mid-way down across the pit. He then lowers grates on top of the bars. Any remaining funk from previous barbecues burns off. Volunteers bring the crates of meat from the refrigerated truck, dripping with wine and blood, and stack them close by.

Jacobsen gives the nod and the meat is hefted onto the grates with bare hands. He stands at the edge of the pit giving orders like a military mastermind: "Give me one right here. Fat side up! That one's wrong, put the tails inward. Fill the gaps!" He's pointing in a tactical fashion, leaning over the pit, face alight from the hot glow of the embers.

Once the roasts are distributed two or three deep, the team works to seal the pits. First, the iron channels around the lips of the pits are filled with water. The lids are then lifted on and covered with heavy, damp canvas tarps to contain the heat and wood palettes to hold everything in place. With the pits locked down, everyone says goodnight and drifts toward home.

"Four generations in the cookshack!"

Lucille's beans

The bean crew is a sassy bunch. They've been cooking since 7 a.m., navigating the morning on a gentle wave of coffee and moonshine. Siblings Mike Bonnikson and Pam Berry head up the crew, along with their kids, grandkids and cohorts Tina Smith and Jeff Robison. "We took over this job 15 years ago," Berry explains. "Previous to this, they just opened cans of beans and that's what you got."

It's grandma Lucille Bonnikson's recipe and, although the precise details are top secret, the contents include kidney and butter beans, sautéed hamburger, bell peppers, onion, brown sugar and liquid smoke. Bubbling away in giant vats stirred with long wooden paddles, the 70 gallons of beans smell fabulous. After about four hours of simmering, they are transported over to the serving table in wagons, one pot at a time. "The rest stay in the cookshack and we take them down as needed so nobody gets cold beans," explains Smith.

Berry goes over the rest of the barbecue menu, which includes pre-made Reser's Raspberry Parfait. "It's really just Jell-O, but we don't tell people that!" she laughs. The soft white bread rolls are from the Ray's bakery in Fortuna. Although the dough is pre-made out of the area, local bakers cut, shape and bake 1,900 individual rolls over the course of two days.

"And the potato salad?" Berry continues, "When people go up for potato salad they ask, 'Is this Wally's potato salad?' If it is, they'll take it. Otherwise, they'll pass it up."

Wally's wife, Sandra Close, of CC Market in Rio Dell, says 500 pounds of hand-peeled red potatoes and 600 eggs were used to make the 60 gallons of potato salad required to feed the rodeo barbecue crowd. They add other stuff like salt, pepper and garlic, but, Close says, "Best Foods mayonnaise and red potatoes are probably what make it good." It takes her crew of seven people a full day to prepare the salad. Due to the nature of the beast, "it has to be done quickly," she says. "It's a family recipe," she adds, but mentions nothing about it being top secret.

Outside the cookshack, the rodeo grounds are bustling. "Whoo hoo! Good morning!" someone calls across the crowd of workers. Two bands are setting up, someone's making cardboard signs and a guy is stalking around on top of the picnic tables with a leaf blower, hoping to dry things out a bit before the tablecloths go down.

At 9:30, a full hour and a half before the barbecue is served, the first person stations herself at the front of the line. Unmoved by the long wait and the unseasonably drizzly weather, she stands calmly amid the chaos, explaining how she came nice and early so she could get to bingo on time. By 10 o'clock, there are hordes more in line behind her.

"Nice and juicy!"

The beef is ready

Back at the pits, the meat is still entombed, but not for long. Jacobsen hovers quiet and thoughtful. The tarps are off now, and people circle the pits, placing their hands on the covers to feel the warmth still coming through.

Jacobsen suddenly makes the call, "PULL THAT COVER!" he shouts, like the commander of a ship. Smoke billows from the pits, erupting with the smell of earthy charcoal. Jacobsen's grandson, Jake, settles his pitchfork into the first lump of meat, which has a weathered, greeny-brown, almost prehistoric look about it. It's so tender, it falls to pieces when he lifts it. People reach in with their hands and grab chunks to sample. The crew murmurs with satisfied approval: "Looks perfect..." "That taste never gets old..." "Just barely holding together..." "Nice and juicy..." "Not gonna argue with that..." "I don't want you to starve over there, anybody starves around here it's their own fault!"

Once the meat is evaluated and approved by the crew, another two of Jacobsen's grandkids sidle up with massive roasting pans. The meat is hoisted from the pit with more pitchforks, one roast at a time, and the kids run it across to the serving tables.

The line is outrageously long by now; it goes two or three people across, down the street, around the corner and spills into the baseball field parking lot. A few cunning folks have brought folding chairs for their stint of line dwelling. They spectate comfortably in the swarm of activity.

The music starts up and there's a random, hearty yelp from the crowd. It's time to eat. Everyone is smiling. The food servers glow with satisfaction as they load up the plates. The butter lady is careful to nestle the pat of butter next to the Jello so it won't melt when the meat goes on. The bean lady's got her baby girl in a backpack carrier, and her little feet are kicking to the time of the music. The meat guys are using a new technique to serve this year — 16-ounce red Solo cups — to provide more consistency in portions. It's not pretty, but it seems to be working.

As the band launches into a song about a farmer's daughter, I find a spot at a picnic table, unwrap my plastic utensils and dig in. The beans are good and tangy. The beef, smoky and messy and delicious, falls apart on the fork. Wally's crew has outdone itself with the potato salad, the bread is soft and it's a damn fine raspberry parfait.

"Everybody seems happy!" someone calls out to Dave Nicholson. "That's all we can ask for!" he replies heroically, disappearing into the frenetic crowd, clearly on a mission of some sort. All over the place, people are eating. Some are seated at the mind-bogglingly long picnic tables on the cookshack lawn and others are gathered around tailgates in the baseball field. In the middle of it all, two old cowboys catch each other's eye, nod across the crowd and exchange a thumbs up.

The end result of the all that work by all those people is nearly 2,000 paper plates of food served up in two hours flat. But really, it's so much more. It's family, community and tradition with a whole lot of love thrown in. As Karen Jacobsen leaned over and said around midnight, "It's nice to have roots set down so deep you can't move."

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct the spelling of Tom Head's name. The Journal regrets the error.

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