Joan Nathan shares stories of the Koontz family barbecues and how they celebrate the Fourth of July in Texas.
A more subdued tone marks this sprawling kingdom of a ranch now that the boss is dead, killed a couple of years ago when his car was demolished by a pickup in the hands of a 20-year-old who had put away way too much bourbon, or something. But the barbecues the boss and Mary Sue held after stock sales or to celebrate holidays with friends and family have become legends in a state where legends don't rise easily. His voice, unabashed and penetrating, can still be heard in his neighbors' memories, booming across the prairie as they celebrate the Fourth of July in Texas.
I just love the Fourth of Joo-ly," blared Henry Clay Koontz, the boss. It was late in the evening on a hot and humid south Texas Fourth of July, and Henry was looking out from the upper deck of the HK Ranch pool house to the pasture, where two cowhands were setting off a 30-minute fireworks display that eclipsed the starry night itself. Just a few hours earlier, this same field had been filled with HK cattle, some of the most highly prized Brahman breeding stock in the country. A wind surfer on the pond had scared off a hundred or so. Now the endless prairie seemed deserted except for a lone trailer. Sitting with Henry Clay, guests could see the wide-open range on all sides. On the other side of the ranch house, Joe Padilla, the Mexican head cook, and the top ranch hands were still dishing out the barbecue vittles.
The annual HK Ranch Fourth of July in Texas was fun, Texas-size, orchestrated by Henry Clay and his wife, Mary Sue, for about 200 friends and family members. The ranch, a division of the 35,000-acre family-owned Keeran Ranch, was started in 1867 by Henry's great-grandfather, Captain John N. Keeran, a Texas pioneer. In 1878, Keeran imported the first humpbacked Brahman cattle from India into the Western Hemisphere. Henry Clay's mother was a well-known Brahman breeder and followed in the family tradition. "See those lights there. That's the Luaca Bay, and to the south is the old port of Indianola. That's where my great-grandfather, along with Shanghai Pierce, brought the Brahmans into Texas." Place-do, where the ranch is located, is dotted with gooseneck oil wells and rice and milo fields. It lies about 100 miles south of Houston and 14 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Guests approach the HK Ranch through a gate that's decked out in red, white and blue crepe paper flying from the top of a 15-foot centennial yucca plant. A few miles into the ranch on a din road, they pass the original Keeran family homestead, a large white building with 19 columns, now belonging to Emily Keeran Campbell, or Aunt Emma, as she is called.
At a second checkpoint, beyond another fence enclosing yet more prairie, a yes-sir-ee cowboy in Stetson hat and boots meets each guest with a red bandana wrapped around an icy Lone Star beer, while Sousa marches rouse it up in the background.
Mary Sue tells the story that when she and Henry Clay got married, she didn't want to live on the ranch. "We moved into my little house in Victoria, and he drove back and forth to the ranch every day. That lasted about two months, and then late one night he got a phone call. I could tell he was talking about buying and moving . . . something." Fed up with the commute, he was arranging to move a house 20 miles from Victoria to the HK Ranch.
As it happened, the house Henry Clay had bought—sight unseen—that evening was a church bedecked with JESUS SAVES in blue neon lights. Before Mary Sue would step into it, however, Henry Clay had to convert it into a home.
Today clumps of pampas grass lead up to the incongruous house. A swimming pool, bordered with palm trees, sits to its right, with a screened-in pool house containing a kitchen and a dumbwaiter that goes up to the roof terrace, Henry's favorite under-the-stars dining area. On the veranda, with its white wicker rockers and a seven-foot porch swing, a small engraved brass plaque reads: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED HERE IN 1897—a takeoff on the Texas Heritage markers scattered on historical landmarks throughout the state.
For the Fourth of July party, the front lawn—really the front prairie—was filled with burros decked out in straw hats softened with flowers, waiting for the races to begin. From 4:00 until dusk, Mary Sue steered her guests through old-fashioned fun and games: a sack race, croquet, volleyball, softball, horseshoe throwing, spin-the-bottle and water volleyball. Grilled beef sausage on tortillas with Joe Padilla's hot chilipetin sauce woke up the taste buds and got the assembled appetites in gear.
Then Mary Sue stood up on the bandstand, made from an old cattle trailer painted red, white and blue for the occasion and decorated with an HK banner that had hung over their champion Brahmans in recent cattle shows. The sun had gone down, and the bandstand was ablaze with colored lights and candles.
"Listen, you all! As most of you know, we wouldn't be enjoying ourselves so much tonight if it weren't for Joe Padilla and his men," Mary Sue thundered over the loudspeaker before presenting Joe with a trophy. After a short patriotic speech, she let out six doves of peace, rang the freedom bells and had the Mexican mariachi band play its cha-cha rendition of "God Bless America." Eight long picnic tables bordering the swimming pool, the steps of the veranda, the pool-house and pool-roof tables—all now lit with candles—awaited the hungry guests as they shuffled through the buffet line. The quantities of food showed that Joe had earned his award. When Texans say barbecue, they don't mean cooking on a hibachi or gas grill.
Actually the word barbecue comes from barbacoa, a Caribbean Indian word. To a Carib, a barbacoa was a grate of thin green sticks set on sticks upon which meat was grilled over an open fire. The meat was cut into thin strips and slowly cooked. To this method of curing and cooking meat, each immigrant settler added his own favorite spices. For the Indians, a barbecue became a particularly popular means of socializing. They would often go to a beach to bake fish encased in mud in the ashes of a fire or to barbecue pork or chicken (thus the New England clambake). The Indians may have started this custom, but the early Texans felt quite comfortable with it, used as they were to assembling around a cookfire at night after the work of the day was finished.
Today Texans grill on 50-gallon oil drums, cut in half lengthwise, hinged and rigged with a rack and a little smokestack. Each device is set on a couple of wheels. The day before the party, ranch hands had gathered prickly mesquite wood. On this particular morning, they had started open fires and stoked barbecue pits with oak and cedar chips. Joe used three grills—two for sausages and a huge one for the chickens. A giant iron bean pot, holding pinto beans the color of terra cotta, was placed on a tripod over an open fire. "You'll find a pot of pinto beans sitting on the stove all day in most south Texas ranch kitchens," Mary Sue explained, "and coffee that's strong enough to walk!" Maria Padilla, Joe's wife, had made corn tamales in the coals of one of the grills. The same method produces hot tamales.
Joe makes up his hot sauce from the tiny, fiery chili pequins that grow all over the ranch. Seventy-one-year-old Annie Todd, the now-retired cook who took care of Mary Sue as a child, made potato salad for the occasion. She sat watching the goings-on, wearing a white apron embossed in red with the ranch's logo and an imposing Brahman.
Later on in the night, 20 or so older guests sat with Henry Clay in his favorite roost, all watching the fireworks display. As the fireworks—and the evening—wound down, Henry Clay decided to help intensify the finale by letting out a loud Texas holler: "Mary Sue, let's hear Kate Smith!" Mary Sue turned on a record. As the red, white and blue firecrackers lit up the sky; the HK Ranch was filled with Kate Smith blasting out "God Bless America." After the fireworks ended, the young people danced on the top deck until 2:00 a.m., while the out-of-towners headed back to their homes. As one guest who had lived for a while in Virginia explained, "You couldn't have this kind of Fourth of July barbecue in the East. You simply don't have the room."Joan Nathan is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to AMERICAN COUNTRY magazine.
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