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."
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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz