This wasn’t a typical tailgate.
Stacey Walker had a Sooner to beat, and it wouldn’t be on the football field.
Every year, the East Dallas native faces off against University of Oklahoma fans in a cooking competition. At stake: Who can make the best ribs.
On a corner just outside of Fair Park in South Dallas, Walker, 55, set up a wood smoker at his friend’s house about four hours before the 11 a.m. kickoff between the University of Texas Longhorns and their Oklahoma rival.
He had bought about 75 pounds of brisket and ribs at Costco — enough to feed 100 people.
Walker, who grew up going to tailgates, mixed his own seasoning and made his own rub — he’ll only reveal he used a little mustard.
He had started cooking brisket and ribs almost 24 hours earlier. The morning of the game, the aluminum foil-wrapped meat was ready for the smoker. He timed them so they would both be ready by kickoff.
“Nice, soft and slow,” he said. “The meat comes out real tender.”
The Red River Showdown has been a State Fair of Texas tradition since 1929. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year was the first time since World War I that the fair was canceled.
Until last week, many fans weren’t sure if the famed football face-off would suffer the same fate. And even with fewer fans allowed at the game, many were unsure whether they’d make it to a tailgate tradition of more than 15 years.
But Walker had decided that game or no game, he’d be cooking what he had perfected over 28 years: ribs.
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About an hour before kickoff, Walker looked up from his RiverGrille — a smaller version of the smoker he normally pulls with his Ford F-150 — to an empty patch of grass across Lawhon Street.
Marc Brockhaus, his rib rival from Oklahoma City, should have been in his parking space.
Walker shrugged it off; the Brockhaus crew was probably somewhere drinking or recovering from last night’s Sooner festivities.
When another 20 minutes passed, Walker checked his phone. Where were they?
After what seemed like an eternity, four familiar faces appeared from down the street. But by the time the Brockhauses arrived, their normal parking spot had been taken.
They typically drive a remolded school bus decorated with OU colors and decked out with grilling tools.
But it was in Oklahoma.
“What happened to you guys?” Walker asked.
“It’s 2020,” Brockhaus said.
Brockhaus and his wife, Barbara, had downsized their normal crew of about 20 people. Only a couple whom they’d known for more than two decades, Fred and Bethany Neighbors, decided to make the trip this year.
The Neighbors couple both had recently recovered from mild cases of COVID-19.
And one of their friends who normally rides with them stayed home after being hospitalized for the virus.
The party they always attend the night before in Ardmore, Okla., halfway between Dallas and Oklahoma City, was canceled, too.
But even without their annual traditions, they drove down to see their favorite Longhorns.
“You gotta have somewhere to drink beer, right?” Fred Neighbors joked.
And that’s what they did. Under the shade of a tent and a couple of crape myrtle trees, the Oklahoma crew popped bottles and can tabs with a handful of Walker’s family members and other friends.
Around the second quarter, people migrated from their lawn chairs and makeshift seats to the spread Walker and his sous-chef — his daughter Ariel — had prepared. The aroma of turkey legs, Boudin sausage and brisket drifted up the block, along with the smell of potato salad and baked beans. This year, Walker even tried his hand at something new: smoked queso.
Kevin Madden’s house on the corner of Fitzhugh Avenue and Lawhon Street has been a go-to parking spot for a handful of fairgoers for decades. Madden became the owner of the one-story gray house in 2006 after his mother died. Before that, she had been charging people to park on her property since the 1940s.
The first year Madden took over parking cars, he had a TV out on his lawn to keep up with the score. A police officer pulled up at one point and asked if he could watch with him.
The next year, the officer stopped by again. The year after that, some of his colleagues joined him. That’s when Madden asked Walker to start barbecuing at the gatherings.
Now, Walker smokes enough meat for the police, code inspection and other law enforcement officers who have become regular visitors over the years, plus any passersby who want a taste.
None of the officers showed up this year.
But a visitor from San Antonio stopped by and asked for a plate.
He parked his truck on the side of Lawhon Street while Walker fixed a brisket sandwich with a side of baked beans. Then he sat down on a nearby cooler to catch a few minutes of the game on Madden’s TV.
Normally, there’d be dozens of people coming back and forth from Madden’s house. This year the crowd was smaller.
Right around the time Walker typically starts the ribs, two of Madden’s loyal patrons pull in from Norman, Okla.
Cheryl and Norman Davis started parking at Madden’s house around 2004, two years before Madden moved in. One year, the Davises showed up to park, and Madden was outside, explaining that he would continue his mother’s parking legacy.
“We instantly became friends,” Cheryl Davis said.
But their friendship isn’t immune from the Red River rivalry. The Davises have been Sooners season ticket holders since the late ’90s. Norman Davis graduated from OU in 1980, and his two sons followed suit. So when the Sooners win, they have a little fun.
This year, though, the friendly showdown didn’t unfold as they’d hoped: The coronavirus pandemic caused game officials to reduce the Cotton Bowl stadium’s capacity to 25%. The Davises had requested tickets early on, but they didn’t luck out.
In the 15 or so years that they’ve been parking at Madden’s house, the Davises have only missed a few games. The State Fair’s cancellation wasn’t a big deal to them.
But without the game’s festivities, their October feels incomplete.
“Not only is it a tradition,” Norman Davis said, “but we’ve met people that we consider family.”
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