Hands on in Houston: local pitmaster joins relief effort

September 9, 2017 10:05:04 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Chances are Hank Vaiden will never forget how he spent Labor Day 2017. While most people avoided toil of any stripe, Vaiden was up to his T-shirt sleeves in it, part of an army of volunteers operating on little sleep, over hot cookers and asphalt in Harvey-ravaged Houston. The Columbus restaurant owner and competition pitmaster was in Texas to work with Operation BBQ Relief. With Hurricane Irma targeting Florida, he's on alert again. 


Operation BBQ Relief, or OBR, is a nonprofit effort to provide meals to displaced residents and emergency personnel during disasters. It was formed in May 2011 to feed tornado-stricken victims and responders in Joplin, Missouri. When OBR deploys, members from competitive barbecue-cooking teams around the country give of their time, skill and dollars to provide what comfort they can.  


"I can attest firsthand that it's a great organization," said Vaiden, who met up with fellow volunteer Jonathan Huddleston in Ridgeland before heading to Texas Sept. 2. A trip that should normally take about nine hours took closer to 12 due to Harvey's effects. It was near 2 a.m. last Sunday morning before the Mississippians rolled in at the designated OBR staging site -- a downtown Houston parking lot turned into a temporary "barbecue village." After a few hours' shut-eye in the truck, Vaiden was up and cooking, something he would do almost nonstop for the next three days. That is, unless he was helping load insulated containers packed with hot meals into Chinook helicopters at Houston's Hobby International Airport for airlift to flooded Beaumont, Texas. 


"You have no idea the displaced people and devastation; the media coverage can't do justice at all," said Vaiden Wednesday afternoon. He'd made it back to Columbus only a few hours earlier and was visibly weary and concerned. "I'd seen it on TV, but when you see it with your own eyes ... " 


The whole experience was humbling, said the Columbus man who saw OBR volunteers showing up from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Necessities from cookers to wood were donated for the cause. 


"The barbecue network is like a big family. There were people from all over bringing in trailers, meat and everything donated, five refrigerated trailers donated ... " said Vaiden, who owns Hank's #1 Championship Barbecue. That generosity allowed the OBR disaster response team to prepare 45,750 hot meals -- meat and sides -- on Labor Day. Wednesday saw a single-day record output for the organization: 55,575 meals prepared. Most went out in coolers to fill requests from churches, shelters and others who were feeding thousands of people. By Thursday, OBR's Facebook page revealed that, in eight days in Texas, volunteers had made 303,160 hot meals. Hurricane Harvey has spurred the group's largest deployment to date. 


"I may not be able to go out in a boat and look for somebody, but I can use my God-given talent to cook," said Huddleston, owner of Grills of Mississippi. One hundred percent of donations to OBR go directly to relief, he added. "It's all an awesome thing," he said. "We compete against each other on weekends, but then we all come together for the aid of our brothers and sisters in a disaster like this." 


Vaiden had praise for organizers, volunteers and donors, and for others like the Houston police, Air National Guard, U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard.  


"It was really humbling. ... We take for granted being able to run somewhere to get a burger. Those people affected can't run anywhere. The perspective you get ... you just don't realize the luxuries you have ... " 


And now, Irma. OBR posted Friday morning that it is looking for staging locations in Florida. The barbecue community-at-large, known for its hospitality, is also showing its heart.  


"The competing part of competition is fun," said Vaiden, "but helping people is much more gratifying." 


Editor's note: To learn more about OBR hurricane relief and impending deployment to Florida, go to operationbbqrelief.org.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.