By Jim Schutze
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Deen's trucks could be closed, sealed and reopened only by FDA agents. His staff went through extensive background checks. Still, he was able to pepper his crew with a few of the formerly lawless and unsavory, including Fields and a one-time street tenant and drug addict named Paul Dunbar. Like Fields, Dunbar met Deen during one of his classes last September at Reconciliation Outreach ministry, a shelter in South Dallas. "I had gotten to the point where basically I just didn't even understand why I was on the earth...I was just here taking up space," Dunbar said from his cell phone in a Washington hotel kitchen while preparing food for the inaugural bashes. "I didn't know who this guy Deen was. When I went to that class that morning, man, it was like an explosion went off in my brain."
But the explosions seem mostly to detonate inside Deen's brain. A simple conversation instantly sallies into an oratory on intent, mind-set and the importance of being beneficial. A quick phone call bows under the strain of earnest sermons focused on fundamental principles and the recipe for living an effective life. And that's before Deen gets to subatomic particles and the energy and intelligence embedded in brisket. "It's hard to be around Eddie without hearing that stuff," says Sparky Sparks, an entertainment promoter who once worked for Deen as a manager. "He's an interesting cat."
Though Deen doesn't talk much about barbecue during his classes, his intensity mounts when prompted. Barbecue is power; barbecue is spiritual, he says. He insists it took him only two hours to develop his signature sauce, a process through which he felt a spiritual connection that moved him. He says his sauce was a gift.
"Barbecue sauce is fundamentally made up of atoms," he says. "Atoms are made up of subatomic particles. Subatomic particles are made up of energy, information and intelligence. What's really taking place is that it is communicating to you fundamentally. When you eat this barbecue sauce, if you have an optimal belief system in life, it's what you're going to create through these atoms that you are taking in, which is barbecue sauce."
It's labeled "Crawford, Texas, The Western White House Bar-B-Q Sauce," and Deen sells bottles of it online, supplies it for fund-raisers and gives it to the president and Texas governor to dispense as gifts.
"The idea is, is the sauce beneficial?" Deen says. "If the sauce is not beneficial, then fundamentally you have undermined the energy, information and intelligence of an event."
Deen, 48, the father of four children from two marriages, was born and raised in Wills Point, the youngest of three brothers and two sisters. His family earned a living operating a cotton, oats and cattle ranch, and food, politics and philosophy seem to run in the family. His cousins operate Deen Meat Co. in Fort Worth, and his great-uncle Edgar Deen served four terms as mayor of Fort Worth in the 1940s and early 1950s. Edgar Deen's wife, Edith, is among the all-time best-selling authors of books on women, including All of the Women of the Bible, published in 1955.
Deen studied agricultural education at Texas A&M University with ambitions of becoming a football coach. He insists his sports passions have been satisfied through barbecue. "What goes into football coaching and catering is pretty synonymous," he says. "There's always a timeline: so many minutes, the event's over. You feel like you've won or lost but really have no time to celebrate because you've got another game to play." He pauses. "Instead of a football, it's brisket, I guess."
Yet barbecue was mostly a diversion for Deen to fend off post-college doldrums. After graduating in 1979, Deen returned to Wills Point and found the pulse there intolerably tepid when stacked against college life. So he started selling hot tubs. He also opened Eddie's Restaurant in the Lakeview Marina on Lake Tawakoni, on property his family owned. (The restaurant has since closed.) There he served barbecue. He hosted catamaran races. He constructed a 900-square-foot dance floor with a hot tub that overlooked the lake. He brought in live entertainment. His little lakefront operation in sleepy Wills Point drew thousands on weekends. "It quickly became a hit," Sparky Sparks says.
In 1980 Deen opened Ranch Hand BBQ in Wills Point, a restaurant he shuttered in 1985 and moved to Terrell. Along the way, Deen opened and closed a Ranch Hand Barbecue in Lancaster as he steadily built his catering business, mostly through catering events at oil mogul Ray Hunt's Circle K Ranch in Kaufman. Deen started by feeding small groups of dove hunters, mostly corporate chieftains. It wasn't long before he was regularly catering business luncheons for Hunt Oil executives. "There was a lot of interest in who was the caterer for Ray Hunt," Deen says.