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Santa Anna’s World Championship Bison Cookof

Written by Lou Ann Dean.

Smells of mesquite smoke permeate the air as dedicated barbecuers prepare what they hope will be the winning brisket. It’s a Saturday morning in mid-May, deep in the heart of Texas, and my husband and I are at the World Championship Bison Cookoff in Santa Anna. This big bison barbecue bash, held in conjunction with the community’s Funtier Days, is set in Gary James Memorial Park, across the railroad tracks just south of the city’s main thoroughfare. The small-town festival combo celebrates the coming of summer. And summer has arrived, indeed. It’s 100 degrees! And, while attendees can enjoy entertainment such as cloggers from Kerrville and country singers from Brownwood, it’s the barbecue that steals the show.

Nearly 50 award-winning teams and their recreational vehicles fill the parking lot, with banners bearing team names such as Eagle Eye Cookers (from Abilene) and We Don’t Cook Sheep (from Sweetwater) proudly displayed in front of their respective team’s pits. The Texas Bison Association sanctions and oversees the judging of this cookoff, encouraging cookers to treat bison meat as a specialty, not just another beef brisket. The cooks await the appointed time to submit their meat preparations, and many have been cooking throughout the night, perfecting their secret rubs and sauces.

As nearby streets and outer parking areas fill with festival-goers, I walk between the teams’ pits and smokers. I strike up a conversation with a father-and-son team standing under a cloth tarp near their travel trailer. The second-generation cooker samples a slice of his bison brisket hot from the homemade pit. He looks up as his father eases in behind him. “It’s burned up, but it’s gonna win,” the son says. His father, glancing at the product, ambles back to his lawn chair and comments, “I’d wrap ’em tight in foil.”

Santa Anna Historical Development Organization members Montie Guthrie and Rod Musick dreamed up the event in 1992. They hoped to tie together the cultural heritage of the local Native American influence and their annual Funtier Fest.

“Why don’t we have a buffalo cook-off?” Rod suggested. More than a decade later, and with a slight name change, to bison, the Santa Anna Championship Bison Cookoff is still bringing in the state’s best barbecuers.

Those unfamiliar with the city’s history might wonder, “Why would they name the town for the famous Mexican general?” Actually, they didn’t. Penateka Comanches lived in this region during the time that Texas was a republic, and their chief would often lead raiding parties into Mexico. Legend has it that this chief queried who the Mexicans’ leader was. Upon learning the name, he proclaimed himself as Santa Anna also, putting himself on equal standing with the noted leader.

This band of Comanches roamed the Hill Country region for many decades, and Santa Anna (also spelled Santana) was one of the signers of the 1847 peace treaty between the Germans of Fredericksburg and the Comanches. The two peaks north of Santa Anna, once used by tribesmen as lookout points, are called Santa Anna’s Peaks, although the only sentinels now are cellular-phone towers.

I wander into the grounds’ Old Armory Civic Center, where the pie competition has just concluded. “This year’s pie contest winner, Billie Taylor of Santa Anna, generally enters five pies and usually wins first or second place,” Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Nancy Wylie tells me. I can see why. Billie’s first- and second-place entries—coconut cream and banana split, respectively—prove melt-in-your-mouth good. Third-place winner Chanda Rice’s pecan pie also draws raves, as each slice soon disappears into the mouths of those lucky enough to sample the goods.

Inside the Center’s gymnasium-size great hall, more than a hundred arts and crafts booths offer a range of hand-crafted goodies, while local volunteer librarians Alice Spillman and Betty Key walk the aisles, each wearing a placard offering bargain deals on books outside the Center. I venture out to see a trailer-load of “gently used books,” noticing one happy book-lover carrying her treasures away in a wheelbarrow.

While festival-goers listen to local musicians under the park’s pavilion or take their chances at a game of horseshoes, inside the Civic Center meeting room, head judge Jennifer Dizmang instructs volunteers on the essentials of judging barbecued bison. “Brisket is judged on a scale of one to ten,” Jennifer explains. “Smell the aroma, look at the color, check its taste and texture. What is the overall appeal of the meat?” Other meat-cooking categories here include beef brisket, pork spare-ribs, and chicken halves.

“The grand champion here qualifies for cooking at the national Kansas City event,” explains Montie Guthrie.

All meat is cooked on-site, generally between Friday and early Saturday morning. At noon on Saturday, a lunch of barbecued brisket and all the trimmings is served under a tent. The chamber uses funds raised by Funtier Days to help restore the Old Armory Civic Center and to improve Gary James Memorial Park.

Later, Judy Meister, the Santa Anna Chamber of Commerce public relations coordinator, seems to be two places at once—introducing the entertainment at one end of the festivities and dishing out ice cream at the other. Nearby, a beach volleyball game goes full tilt, while at a raffle, others vie for a chance to win a bicycle donated by the Odessa VFW.

Near the festivities’ end, winners of the cookoff are announced inside the pavilion. Sounds of high-volume sprays of water resonate outside—local firefighters are overseeing contestants’ skill with fire hoses in a game of street water polo. In the pavilion audience, winners talk about how their cash awards will just about cover their expenses. When one contestant wins two events, the cooker next to me chuckles, “He may just make it home tonight.” A $35-prize winner “seriously” proclaims, “Thank you very much. I’m going to Disneyland.”

One by one, the winners are announced until the Overall Grand Champion, Ed Kelly of Team Midland, receives the top cash award and trophy.

After a day filled with small-town-Texas entertainment, I ask for local dinner recommendations. “Noreta’s Steak House. Where else?” a departing Bison Cookoff/Funtier Days participant says. “It has the best steak for a hundred miles around.”

My husband and I head back downtown to check it out. From bison to beef. What better way to celebrate Santa Anna and Texas?

This year’s World Championship Bison Cookoff takes place May 20. Santa Anna is at the junction of US 84, 67, and 283, about 60 miles southeast of Abilene. Turn south on FM 1176, and follow it to the Old Armory Civic Center and Gary James Memorial Park. Funtier Days begins around 9 a.m. on May 20 and lasts until everybody leaves. For more information, call Montie Guthrie at 325/348-3826, or go to www.santaannatex.org.

From the May 2006 issue.

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