Sometimes when you’re cooking a lot of barbecue, you might put something like a big stick in the center of the pit to gauge how high the fire’s getting. Each year at the XIT Ranch in Dalhart, the fire gets so big that it takes a crane to haul that measuring stick into place. And the barbecue seasoning? It’s mixed in horse troughs, there’s so much of it. This annual event’s got a reputation as the “World’s Largest Free Barbecue,” so it should come as no surprise that BBQ Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn has partaken.
The larger-than-life story of this very large event begins in Austin, actually, where Vaughn is based.
“It’s a very real story,” he says. “The folks who were building the Texas Capitol here in Austin, they needed a whole lot of money to do it, and the only thing they really had was land.”
The government of Texas in the 1880s traded three million acres of land in the panhandle to a collective which underwrote the construction of the Texas State Capitol, or so the story goes, according to Vaughn. Dalhart now sits on some of this land.
“The State of Texas traded the land of the XIT Ranch for the capitol building that we see now,” Vaughn says.
The ranch operated for a few decades, according to Vaughn, before going defunct. Twenty years or so later, the former XIT ranchers decided to have a reunion. The first reunion was in Fort Worth, Vaughn says, and there wasn’t a barbecue component to it. The next year, it moved home, to Dalhart, and that’s where it’s remained ever since, eventually transforming into the barbecue feast and rodeo it is today.
The group that runs the XIT Rodeo and Reunion does fundraising all year to raise money to put on the “feed”, as it’s known colloquially.
“It’s enormous,” Vaughn says. “It’s not some little giveaway. This is 10,000 pounds of beef that they cook year in and year out.”
About 750 pounds of seasoning are used in the preparation of the meat, according to Vaughn, and the meat is cooked underground, barbacoa style.
“It’s not like a smoker that you’d find at a Texas barbecue joint or anything,” he says. “This is a pit dug in the ground.”
They dig two pits every year, measuring 75 feet long, four feet deep, and four feet wide, Vaughn says. They stack these pits full of wood, which gets doused with 1000 gallons of fuel. Next, the barbecue director lights it on fire.
“Every year the XIT has a barbecue director,” Vaughn says. “One of the former directors told me essentially lighting this pit is a controlled bomb.”
This year’s barbecue director was Winston Gilmore. He stood about 50 feet from the pits and lit a torch and threw it in. Then he did it again to the second one. Vaughn was there to watch it happen.
“You hear and you feel this giant whoosh. You hear the sound and feel the heat. And then about a second later you hear another whoosh,” he says. “The flames are 30 feet tall.”
Next up, a team of volunteers helps load the meat into the pit to cook.
“You have a whole lineup of people all along the pit who are throwing these wrapped up packages of beef into the fire,” Vaughn says. “And then before anything ignites, you need to get a lid on top of it and dirt on top of that to cut off all the oxygen.”
This is achieved by a team of people who put tin sheets over top of the pit, as well as two front end loaders that scoop dirt on top of the tin.
“The people who are putting all of the tin on top, they’re basically putting their lives in the hands of these two men running these front end loaders,” Vaughn says.
Finally, it’s time to eat. There’re about 20 different lines, according to Vaughn.
“You choose your line hoping it’s going to move the fastest,” he says. “You get up to the front and they give you a good helping of beef and some of the barbecue sauce, pickles, onions, bread, a scoop of beans out of a plastic lined trashcan, and a scoop of applesauce, as well.”
Yes, you can go back for seconds. You can also wait around and buy one of the big packages of beef that’s left over at the end of the feed. That’s the only money you’ll spend at the feed, though.
“There’s no payment, no tip jar, you just show up,” Vaughn says. “You just drop in on Dalhart at the right time.”
The XIT Rodeo and Barbecue happens annually on the first weekend of August.
Written by Kate Groetzinger.