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Oklahoma Barbecue It’s Worth the Sweat Oklahoman ?

Hard work is the only way Velmer Stevenson knows how to make barbecue. As owner of Stevenson Bar- B-Que in Pauls Valley, he oversees an operation that requires a lot of sweat—literally. In a steel shed behind the restaurant sits an enor- mous black smoker fueled by nothing but hickory wood. No charcoal. No gas. No electric. Just wood. “We shove it in by hand,” he said. “In fact, we don’t have any rotisserie back there, either. Everything we cook, we turn by hand.”

The evidence is clear when he cuts open a pork steak to reveal a smoke ring so deep that it nearly touches in the middle. The crust is a mix of their own special rub and the timely application of a vinegary mop sauce.

These are methods he inherited. His brother Her- man started the restaurant in 1990, using recipes from his mother and grandmother. When he died, Vel mer’s older brother, Bobby Ray, took over and ran it

until his death. To help Velmer keep it going, Stevenson Bar-B-Que em- ploys a lot of family, including his son Herman, who drives all the way up from Texas to pitch in. He said that’s about trust.

“With some of these modern cookers, you

can hire anybody. To cook it our way, you have to learn it,” Velmer said.

And their way has certainly earned some accolades. Listed in the book America’s Best BBQ, Stevenson Bar- B-Que recently made a deal to put their bread pud- ding into supermarket freezers in both Oklahoma and Texas.

But the most important praise might be the silence that falls over the smoky restaurant when the food is served. Formerly talkative guests suddenly cease making noise when big plates of ribs or piles of bris- ket are placed in front of them. Located just east of I-35, Stevenson Bar-B-Que has changed locations a few times over the years, but they’ve stayed true to their food.

Feast Like a Beast

Hundreds of miles to the north in Ponca City is the Head Country Bar-B-Q Restaurant.

If you’re expecting it to be a vanity project for a company that built its name on sauce and rubs, think again. There’s a feast there, but it’s not for your eyes. The building is short and squat and plain. Inside, there’s very little natural light.

And yet, the customers line up. They drive from all over Oklahoma, and plenty come from out of state. It’s not for the view.

If there’s one universal fact in barbecue, regard- less of region, it’s that good food takes time. Which means work for the lunch rush begins at 6:30 a.m., as employees load up the smokers with slabs of ribs, giant briskets, hams, sausages and turkey breasts. Fu- eled by pecan wood from owner Danny Head’s home, the massive rotating ovens yield piles of tasty meats all day long.

But the secret to Head Country started much earli- er. Back in 1945 Danny’s uncle, Donovan Fred “Bud” Head, came home to Oklahoma from his service as a cook in the U.S. Navy. Working on ships, he’d kept the men fed with his own special barbecue sauce blend. When he got back home, he started messing around in the kitchen on the ranch try ing to recreate and perfect it.

Ponca City Davis Pauls Valley

Much as it is today, the sauce was a hit, and Head began selling it— fi rst to neighbors, then to a larger customer base in feed stores. He continued on for years, still cook- ing out of the ranch’s kitchen, but the demand was getting to be too much. In 1977 Danny Head, who’d had his own success in the Oklahoma

oil business, bought the recipe from his uncle and started manufacturing the special sauce. He got out just ahead of the oil bust and spent the next years working to make Head Country a profi table business. Looking around the restaurant, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Head Country struggled. Throug hout the day, a steady stream of customers come in for lunch and dinner. And the patrons are not just locals. Assistant manager Scott Taylor said it’s not uncommon to talk to people who have driven across the state or across the country to buy some sauce and get a bite to eat.

The recipes are fairly simple. Ribs, ham, brisket—

all are rubbed with Head Country seasoning and smoked the same way, in a massive rotating oven. Is there a secret to their success?

“I really don’t know,” Taylor said. “We just work hard to make really good food.”

Savory Melting Pot

Oil didn’t just play a part in the birth of Head Country Bar-B-Q, said Danny Head. Oil might be Continued on page 38

Coming out of the oven, freshly-cooked chicken at Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch and RV Park in Davis, Okla.

JULY 2011 19 Smoked ribs at Stevenson BBQ in Pauls Valley, Okla.

Barbecue platter at Stevenson BBQ in Pauls Valley.

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