BBQ Sauce for the Soul
There's an old upright piano next to the altar, just in front of a banner that reads "Dallas, Our Jerusalem." Barbecue mogul Eddie Deen sits down at the bench and begins to play a rag-style tune. He suddenly locks on one note: plink, plink, plink. "Hey, this thing's out of tune," he says. No one in the Dallas International Street Church hall pays him heed.
It's early Thursday morning and Deen is hosting a class for the church's urban refugees--the homeless, prostitutes, ex-cons, crack addicts and alcoholics. They file slowly into the pews. After the procession has settled, Deen introduces his current protégé: William Fields, a 52-year-old ex-con who was released from prison last September after serving six years of a 15-year sentence for crack cocaine possession. A slight man stricken with multiple sclerosis, Fields tells the loose gathering how he walked with a cane and stuttered before he met Deen and discovered his "seven principles." Now he does neither. He tells them how his great-aunt raised him, how she habitually whipped him only to be stricken with guilt, capping each brutal episode with hugs and sweets. He recounts his despair when at 13 he listened in horror as she vowed never to beat him again. "She said, 'Baby, I'm tired,'" he says in a feeble voice. "When she stopped whippin' me, the love went away. So I had to find it somewhere else."
Deen, Fields says, transformed him by helping him realize the gross misinterpretations that have plagued his head since childhood: mistaking violence for love and expecting positive outcomes from compulsive self-absorption. "That's mostly my downfall," Fields confesses before the thin assembly. "I always put me before I put anybody else. Even before I put God."
Those in the pews are mostly unstirred. Chins sink into chests. Snores rattle through the hall. Deen is agitated as Fields concludes. Wearing jeans, an untucked denim shirt and cowboy boots, Deen stands and strolls to the front of the pews.
"Sometimes we just live in the past. We live in the pain of yesterday. We blame and have excuses," he says, slicing the air with a karate chop. "We have no meaning in life, no purpose." The snoring ceases. Heads rise. "Drugs. Cigarettes. Liquor. He's hiding. He's looking. He starts substituting the idea that he's not lovable with his addictions...I feel good for a moment. Crack, what's that, 10 minutes, 10 seconds?"
For Deen the high is going on 10 years. Before 1995, he was just a small-time barbecue hand operating a tiny restaurant and catering company in Terrell. Then he was tossed into a pot where the cream of some 70 Texas caterers would be sifted out to feed the guests at George W. Bush's 1995 gubernatorial inauguration in Austin. Today Deen is the largest caterer in Dallas-Fort Worth and among the largest feeders in the Southwest, catering more than 3,500 events annually--including the Dallas Cattle Baron's Ball--and generating $8 million in revenues in 2003, trouncing second-ranking Two Sisters Catering by almost $6 million, according to the Dallas Business Journal.
Deen got his boot in the door by catering a wildly successful Bush gubernatorial fund-raiser hosted by car dealer Roger Williams, now secretary of state. Like Bush, Deen beat out his competition and made it to Austin. "On his first day on the job as governor, what is his first responsibility? He's sworn in, and his first responsibility is barbecue," Deen says. He boasts he served 14,000 people in 45 minutes.
He moved quickly into a small ring of Texas political leaders, eventually catering events for Congressmen Martin Frost and Pete Sessions, Mayor Laura Miller and Governor Rick Perry, in addition to a shindig on the island of Mauritius, 800 miles from South Africa, for the Clinton State Department. Since 1995, Deen says, his business doubled every year until the spasms of September 11, 2001, and the convention drought flattened the spike.
The rapid growth rattled his tiny company, and the stress, he says, drove him to develop a quirky psycho-philosophical self-help recipe to cope. He also collected a small cadre of fierce foes. Oddly, he found it comforting to lick his battle wounds in shelters while in the company of ex-cons, addicts and prostitutes.
Eddie Deen is a self-taught musician who plays the piano every day to bleed off steam. Sometimes he is even the marquee performer at his own events, but there was no time for piano in Washington this January. The trip was loaded with 18-hour days and an endless rush of Food and Drug Administration and Secret Service agents milling around Deen's operation, monitoring everything. They roamed the kitchens, armed with thermometers and testing kits, scouring for signs of naturally occurring or intentionally deposited poisons in his grub. "The security was tough," Deen says with a sigh. "They were much more stringent than any local health department. We had a lot of forces of influence, barriers."
In addition to catering the opening ceremonies and meals for the Presidential Inaugural Committee during Bush's second inauguration celebration, Deen catered the zenith of the evening party circuit: the Commander in Chief Inaugural Ball at the National Building Museum, the final stop in Bush's nine-inaugural-ball hop. There Deen and his staff of 52 fed 1,000 soldiers--veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts--and their dates.
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."
Deen almost always begins his sermons with milk. He writes the word on a chalkboard before he starts his classes in street churches and shelters. He asks this question before he unravels his philosophy: "Do you buy milk at the grocery store?" Yes. "No, you don't. What happens if the milk is sour? Did you get what you want?" From there Deen launches into a treatise on the intangibles of milk. You weren't going to the store to buy milk, he insists; you were going to the store to buy the benefits of milk. "People get locked into the physical, into the sensory aspect of things," he explains.
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 Deenserved 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.
Deen made the most of these events, tirelessly working behind the service line, circulating, pressing palms and adding to his Rolodex of North Texas' power players. "Every time you saw Eddie...he always had a pitcher of tea in one hand and a pitcher of lemonade in the other, going around refilling people's drinks and talking to people as they were eating," says John Gilbert, a former operations vice president for Deen who is now a competitor through his own company, Gilbert & Keller Custom Cateringin Fort Worth. "He connected and made a lot of relationships that way, and that's how it grew so quickly."
Deen's business burgeoned after he catered the Bush inaugural ball in Austin. In 1996 he opened Eddie Deen's Ranch to handle the onslaught of special events; the 36,000-square-foot special facility is in an old dress factory and warehouse near the Dallas Convention Center. This was supplemented with a special-events venue in Deep Ellum and a commissary kitchen installed in an old meat locker in Terrell.
Deen had all the tools in place to take advantage of Bush ambitions, and he deployed them to full effect once Bush lunged for the presidency in 2000. He catered fund-raising events, including a Super Bowl party in New Hampshire during the Republican primary. He was selected to cater an event for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Then Mr. Deen went to Washington.
Because of the vagaries and delays stemming from the 2000 Florida recount, Deen had just 12 days to marshal his forces, head to Washington and feed some 22,000 celebrants, which included attendees to the Texas and Wyoming Ball at the Washington Convention Center. "It was the most intense thing that I have been a part of," Gilbert says. "I felt like I was running a MASH unit."
While Deen tacked down the low end of the feeding scale, Abacus chef Kent Rathbun handled the more upscale fare. "We were honored to be a part of it, man," Rathbun says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Sounds like Eddie's got it twice in a lifetime."
But as management conflicts and the stresses associated with high-profile national events and the enormous growth of his company began to mount, Deen turned inward. He began to study psychology and philosophy in earnest, mostly to understand what drives people from cooperation to warfare. Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within struck a chord. "Third chapter, second page," Deen specifies, pulling the book from a shelf in his disheveled Dallas office. "'The forces that cause anybody to do anything are avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.' It struck so hard. It blew me away." Yet he says he found the rest of Robbins' book utterly useless.
So he riffled through other books: Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a little bit of Freud and a lot of the Bible. The works of Abraham Maslow and Albert Einstein figured prominently as well. But the most influential mold shaping Deen's thinking came from Benjamin Franklin. "You just keep going back in history, and you nearly always end up at Benjamin Franklin," he says. "Take lightning. The whole world looked at it as an act of God. He looked at it as a force of nature."
The force of Franklin drove Deen to mold his own ideas, which he boiled down to seven principles for an effective life: respect; cooperation; communication--listen to understand; responsibility--no blame and no excuses; purpose--be beneficial to others; integrity--"walk the talk"; and daily study to keep the mind of a student. Deen animates his principles through bread-making classes he hosts for corporate clients and other groups, assigning a principle to each ingredient in the loaf.
"He wants to get inside people's brains and understand what makes them tick," Gilbert says. "For Eddie, every single day is a quest."
Strange how this quest landed him in the company of the indigent. Deen says he was fascinated by the idea of offering his principles to the homeless because he was struck by how inept current remedies are at jolting people out of their cycles of unproductive behaviors. Current shelters and counseling programs do little more than feed and warehouse, he says. "They really don't understand the mechanics of transformation," Deen insists.
One of the main problems, he says, is the Christian element that often infuses the recovery canon. The trouble, as he sees it, is that many of the people swept up in these shelters have an instinctual revulsion to its core dictums, a resistance honed by their experiences. The very idea of teaching them about "God the Father" is absurd, Deen says, because to many of them "father" is an untrustworthy icon subconsciously representing tyranny and abandonment. "Fundamentally, the Christian God is love," Deen says. "So if you don't feel lovable, how can somebody teach you what God is? All of a sudden there is a disconnect, and I started seeing a lot of disconnect."
What Deen attempts to unravel is why these people feel unlovable, taking them back to their childhoods to discover where and how their interpretations of love and worthiness went awry. His process has a strong whiff of Freudian pop. Instead of subjecting his wards to years of psychoanalysis merely to remember and bring ideas and impulses shaped during childhood into adult consciousness, Deen seeks to shock his subjects into transforming their thinking and perceptions. "If I can tell how somebody got where they're at, then I can teach them how to get out of it," he says. "The ones who keep falling in the ditch, they have not dealt with all of their past conditions." They don't understand that the primary purpose in life is to add value to other people, to be of service to other people, he says. "The idea in life is that if you want to be one of the haves, you have to create benefits for other people."
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 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 focus...to 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."
The suit, whose documents fatten seven file folders and spill out of a large box, went to trial in 2003. A jury ruled against Deen. They found him guilty of fraud and malice and ordered him to pay some $40,000 in damages. They also slapped him with $100,000 in punitive damages. Yet oddly, the jury also ruled that Deen was in effect forcibly evicted by the actions of Parker and the Atrium. Both sides eventually settled after Deen threatened to take the dispute to an appeals court. "What the jury said in this case is that a deal's a deal," says Parker's attorney Ralph Perry-Miller, quoted in a press release dated December 2003. "He may be the president's caterer, but that doesn't give him the right to thumb his nose at business obligations."
Parker speaks in more savage terms. "He's a goddamn crook," he says. "We sued the shit out of him for being a crook, and we won...Eddie Deen's a lyin' son of a bitch, and everything about him is a lyin' son of a bitch."
Deen is circumspect, even philosophical about his jury loss. He maintains that Parker abused his tenants, often small family antiques dealers, and he was one of the few who had the gumption and resources to stand up to him. "There were a lot of lawsuits and a lot of pain," Deen says. "A lot of the tenants had the same problems, but it was easier and quicker just to write the guy a check and move out. I was the only one who refused to reward the landlord. A lot of them just filed for bankruptcy."
Indeed, court records show that Parker has sued several of his tenants, and at least one of them filed bankruptcy before the case could be settled. "I really think I slowed up this guy," Deen says.
Still, a jury ruled against him. Deen blames it on his sudden switch in defense attorneys just before trial and the poor job he did explaining the case. Though terms of the settlement are confidential, Deen says they each spent more than the $350,000 in accrued rents and related charges Parker was seeking in the lawsuit.
"Right in the middle of the trial, it hit me," Deen says. "What's creating so much havoc and chaos in people's lives is not the desire to create havoc and chaos...It's the fear of not having control. That's when I immediately got involved with the shelters."
Deen says his first act after losing in court was to offer a free fund-raising event for the Nexus Recovery Center, a shelter that assists women with alcohol and drug abuse problems. He sees his earnest shelter work as a way of licking his wounds. "What I saw was a way to take away some of my pain, because I could relate to what some of these people were going through," he says. "I got a good education out of that."
But when reminded of the stain that may linger on his reputation, he sighs and his voice becomes quietly steely. "People know who I am. William Fields knows who I am. The people in the shelters know who I am. Rick Perry knows who I am. One of my customers is the president of the United States. "
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston