BBQ Sauce for the Soul

When he's not catering for the president, barbecue maven Eddie Deen caters to the spirits of the indigent

The intractable problem is these people often don't believe they could possibly ever be of benefit to anyone or anything, he says. So Deen tries to get them to think small, to ask the question "How can I be beneficial to someone in this moment?" and then see if and how this changes their perceptions.

But Karen Dudley Estes, the minister who runs the International Street Church in South Dallas where Deen conducts classes, doesn't necessarily see it this way. "They're broken in every area," Estes says. "I don't really think that secular rehabs work, because without the word, without God, it's just what it is: someplace where you go to get clean. You feel OK and you think you can go back to work and have a life.

"Anybody on the street will tell you what they need is, they need a job, and they need a house. Well, that's a lie. They couldn't handle their money. They couldn't handle their job. They couldn't even handle no rent."

Deen the healer? William Fields, below, says he walked 
with a cane and stuttered before he met Eddie Deen at 
one of his classes, above. Now he does neither.
Tom Jenkins
Deen the healer? William Fields, below, says he walked with a cane and stuttered before he met Eddie Deen at one of his classes, above. Now he does neither.
Deen's work at the second presidential inauguration for  
George W. Bush required 18-hour  days and frequent 
intrusive checks by security agents.
Deen's work at the second presidential inauguration for George W. Bush required 18-hour days and frequent intrusive checks by security agents.

Deen sees this as exactly backward. He argues you have to get at the pathologies that interfere with the ability to handle "no rent" in shelters before you can start proffering intangibles, such as "God the Father is love."

Yet some find the passion and rectitude propelling Deen's seven principles just as formidable a barrier as any of those distilled from the Good Book. "He was determined to get his point across," says Richard Plimmer, who once worked with Deen under the title celebration therapist. "He was confident in his views of how he saw things. He's pretty self-righteous, and he doesn't have much time for listening."

Ranch Hand BBQ is a modest structure, a sort of reddish shack. The theme is grabbed and swallowed whole inside: worn wooden floors, brick walls, a big fish in a neglected tank, low-sagging ceilings with visible water damage. Inside a small brick house in the center of the restaurant is a washtub fountain. It's dry. The menu is riddled with ads for auto repair, glass installation and fitness centers.

But the barbecue is stellar; the brisket is uncommonly juicy, with a good smoke plume that doesn't choke the palate. Deen's sauce is rich and deep without cloying sweetness. A slight burn smolders at the roof of the mouth.

Barbecue is nothing but science, Deen says. "Food to me is strictly chemistry," he insists. "If you look at it as art, it doesn't really make sense." What does make sense are the bonds between protein and water molecules in meat, how those bonds fracture during the cooking process and how they're influenced by the 200 different compounds released from burning wood. Deen made it his mission to know what they are, and how to control them through heat and oxygen regulation.

Yet just as quickly as he brings it up, he seems to contradict his "food is science" dictum. "For some reason barbecue is one of those spiritual connections," he says. "It takes 18 hours to cook a brisket. So it takes a lot of care and love and optimize that product...versus fried chicken that takes 30 minutes."

"His philosophy: He practices it, he lives it, he eats it, he drinks it," says Sparks. But not everybody is buying it.

The rancor that altered Deen's life began in March 1995 when he signed a five-year lease with the Atrium antiques mall in Farmers Branch. He opened a barbecue restaurant and catering operation called Eddie Deen's tucked within the stalls filled with small antiques dealers. The agreement called for monthly rent of $6,000 plus 5 percent of gross sales from all catering jobs Deen booked from the mall.

Almost immediately there was explosive friction between Deen and Atrium owner Eddie Parker. "More than anything, it was just a clash of personalities," says caterer John Gilbert, who managed the restaurant. "It was a bad deal from the beginning. It never should have been attempted." By April 1996, Deen had abandoned the Atrium.

Not long after Deen shuttered his restaurant, Parker filed a lawsuit against him, charging him with breach of contract. Bizarre charges and countercharges were hurled back and forth. Parker says Deen spread a rumor that Parker somehow persuaded a Dallas SWAT team to lock the restaurant staff in the mall and drop tear gas canisters down the skylights while helicopters whirred overhead. Parker also charges that Deen served spoiled food to drive away business. Other sources close to the dispute allege that Deen hired goons to start fights and poured barbecue sauce down stairways to create conditions that would enable him to break his lease. "He was just trying to cause enough trouble to get out," Parker says.

"No way. No way. No way," Deen says. He counters that Parker welded fire exit doors shut and removed the cap from a sewer during his business hours to overrun his dining room with a gaseous stench as customers gnawed on his barbecue. In court documents, Deen alleges Parker's employees harassed and assaulted his staff.

But in depositions, one of Deen's employees charged that Deen and a crew had disassembled his restaurant and moved equipment out late one night in January 1996 in an apparent violation of the lease. "[T]he evening was winding down, and I went to the kitchen to do something, and all of a sudden people are moving equipment out of the kitchen through the side door on the second floor and down the fire escape and going out with it. And I said, 'What's going on here?'" said Beryl Collins Speier, an Eddie Deen's Restaurant employee. In a phone conversation, Speier says she was disturbed by Deen's actions and then quickly adds: "Eddie is very talented. He puts out a marvelous product."

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