SAVEUR has been spending some time in the Heartland lately, growing to love the region's warm hospitality and pioneer mettle. So when tornadoes swept through Oklahoma several days ago, the disaster hit close to home. While the Red Cross responds with blood donations and the Salvation Army with water and supplies, we're glad that comforting, just-made plates of smoked pork will also be arriving on the scene to revive the spirits of our Oklahoman neighbors, thanks to Operation BBQ Relief.
A 100% volunteer run non-profit composed of competitive and backyard barbecuers based in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, Operation BBQ Relief fires up their donated smokers to feed those devastated by tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. The organization began as a response to the 2011 tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri. Now, Operation BBQ Relief estimates that each day that it responds to local needs and barbecues in the field, volunteers serve up five to ten thousand steaming plates of pork shoulder (along with chicken, sausage, vegetables, rice, chips, and bread), feeding displaced citizens and first responders.
Shortly after a tornado ravaged Oklahoma City suburbs this week, the group announced its deployment to Moore—where, CNN reported, the two-mile wide tornado took twenty-four lives, including those of seven children killed at Moore's elementary school. I spoke to founding member Stan Hays as he drove 360 miles from the headquarters to Moore through the rain and answered walkie-talkie pages coordinating group members. Hays says that while interested participants can register to volunteer at the Operation BBQ Relief's website, "the biggest thing we need is financial donations right now," which will go towards buying food and dry goods for the operation. "Go to the website and donate."
Image courtesy of Operation BBQ
Operation BBQ volunteers at work after Hurricane Sandy
Hays, a director of sales at Farmer's Insurance by day, barbecues competitively as a member of County Line Smokers. Two years ago, he and his friend and fellow barbecuer Jeff Stith wanted to help after hearing of the Joplin tornadoes, and they called their barbecue buddies to come along. After 11 days of volunteering, Hays and his team had made over 120,000 plates of hot food—certainly more fortifying than the usual offerings of cold cuts and PB&J's.
The group cooks with mostly donated goods from companies like Sam's Club, who helps provide them with fresh meat, veggies, Gatorade, and aluminum pans; donated refrigerated trucks keep everything fresh. For the Moore operation, Stubb's BBQ is supplying 190 cases of barbecue sauce, and wood pellets from BBQr's Delight will fuel the group's seven commercial-sized smokers. Ingredients and supplies are dropped at a predetermined location chosen by the group's founders and executive directors along with emergency personnel to find a central area that can most effectively feed rescue workers and citizens.
Recently, Operation BBQ Relief fed victims of Hurricane Sandy 83,900 meals in what they estimate was their second largest operation. But they achieved an incredible organizational feat after the tornadoes of February 29th, 2012 ravaged Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana, killing 14 people. 36 hours after the storms hit, Operation BBQ Relief came to the aid of three states simultaneously for the first time. A few days into the relief effort, a group from Joplin arrived to help. "We are here to help pay back what was paid to us," said a volunteer.
"Barbecue itself has been giving back to the community for a long time," says Hays, who thinks of his work as simply a logical extension of a long lasting tradition. Since Joplin, the group has gone on to help many more neighbors: Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, New York, and Pennsylvania.
To Hays, responding to a disaster with a plate piled high with pulled pork and sizzling sausage seems like a natural response: "Barbecue is about comfort food. You don't go to a backyard barbecue to have a bad time, you don't go to a backyard barbecue to think about all your problems. Barbecue is a kind of comfort food that brings people to center."