On May 20th, a monster F-4 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, destroying homes, schools, and businesses in seconds, killing 24 people, and devastating the lives of tens of thousands more. Within 24 hours, Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) was serving hot meals to the survivors and the first responders on hand to help.
Founded in May, 2011, OBR has served slow-smoked, made-from-scratch barbecue to hundreds of thousands survivors of hurricane Sandy in New York (see photo, above), wildfires in Colorado Springs, and the fertilizer factory explosion in West, Texas, bringing succor and sustenance to more than a dozen American disaster sites.
I caught up with OBR co-founder and member of the Big Creek BBQ team, Jeff Stith, between urgent phone calls to Oklahoma to learn more about the relief efforts.
Q: How did OBR get started?
Jeff Stith: We’re from Missouri. The day after a massive tornado pummeled Joplin, I got a call from Stan Hayes of County Line Smokers (another local barbecue team) suggesting we haul our rigs down to southern Missouri to help. I was just about to call him with the same idea. We enlisted the help of a third pit master, Will Cleaver of Sticks N Chicks BBQ, whose day job involves logistics.
Q: Why barbecue?
Stith: Competition barbecue teams are already set up to cook outdoors in bad weather conditions — often without power, running water, or lodgings. Why not bring our smokers to the people who need us the most? Barbecue is the ultimate comfort food. For people whose lives have been turned completely upside down, a plate of hot pulled pork or barbecued chicken gives them a sorely-needed sense of normalcy.
Q: What was the first step?
Stith: Once the wind and dust settled in Joplin, we persuaded Sam’s Club to donate 8000 pounds of pork and a local trucking company to provide “reefers” (refrigerated trucks). Volunteers lined up to load them. Other pit masters—like Memphis in May Grand Champion Mike Mills—pitched in. Over the next two weeks, we served more than 120,000 hot meals and soon acquired our 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit corporation status.
Q: What’s the situation in Moore, Oklahoma?
Stith: As of this morning (May 26), we have 40 OBR workers on site, with hundreds more volunteers on the way for Memorial Day. Ole Hickory sent in 5 industrial strength smokers; Cookshack sent us their state of the art FE500 pellet smokers.
Q: What’s on the menu?
Stith: Our volunteers are pulling pork, smoking briskets, and barbecuing chicken. Chicken cooks the fastest, so we serve a lot of that. The idea is to provide a hot balanced meal rich in protein. Our goal is to serve 15,000 hot meals a day in Moore.
Q: Do you ever serve anything unusual?
Stith: Our cooks can get pretty creative. During the Joplin operation, OBR received a donation of a truckload of slightly bruised apples. We smoke-roasted them with butter, sugar, and cinnamon. That day everyone ate dessert.
Q: Do you have to be a barbecue expert to volunteer?
Stith: More than 3000 volunteers have signed up for OBR nationwide. You don’t need to be a champion pit master — or know anything about barbecue — to help out. There’s plenty to do, from unloading trucks to manning the serving line to washing pots and pans.
Q: What’s the most gratifying part of the job?
Stith: People who have lost everything will thank you and hug you for a simple plate of barbecue. It gives you a new perspective on what’s really important in life.
Q: So what can members of our barbecue community do to help?
Stith: Even with food donations and volunteer labor, it costs OBR about $1 for each meal we serve. So please support the effort with a contribution: Donate to the relief effort in Oklahoma through OBR. And of course if you live in the area or have time to travel, you can sign up to volunteer.