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Hirsch shaking seasoning onto chicken breast

'Tis the season to sizzle

Good barbecue
the flame
of many
TDCJ employees

illustration of hot dogs grilling on bbq pit

Chicken breasts stuffed with shrimp, cheese and peppers won former Eastham Unit Major Billy Hirsch first place in the Cook’s Choice judging at the Eastham Unit Cookoff in April.
Photos by David Nunnelee

As summertime sizzles in Texas, so do meats put on the pit by TDCJ prison employees who on their days off trade in their uniforms for aprons, their handcuffs for hand mitts, and their pepper spray for, well, pepper. Former Eastham Unit Major Billy Hirsch is one of the weekend grillers who competes in various cookoffs benefiting various community causes and organizations, including Texas Special Olympics and the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation.

And judging from the number of cook-off trophies he’s won, Hirsch, now an assistant warden at the Polunsky Unit, barbecues a righteous rack of ribs. And his blue ribbon-winning beef brisket bathed in maple syrup (once his secret ingredient) is said to be simply scrumptious; perfectly pink throughout with just the right traits of tenderness and taste.

“I am very, very competitive,” Hirsch said modestly. “I cook a good piece of meat.”

Well, not always. Take the brisket Hirsch marinated in a whole gallon of liquid crab boil overnight a few years back while working as a lieutenant at the Estelle Unit and preparing for its annual barbecue cookoff. It looked great off the grill, but tasted bad enough to make even the heartiest Cajun cringe.

“It was awful, just absolutely awful,” Hirsch said. “But you go through those things. You experiment and you fail as much as you succeed.”

Capt. Michael Franks of the Woodman State Jail in Gatesville can relate. He once marinated a brisket cooked for his family in a bath of Big Red, the soft drink.

“It was the nastiest thing,” Franks said. “That one never made it off the drawing board.”

Needless to say, neither of the blown briskets were on the menu for the 6th Annual Eastham Cookoff in early April. The cookoff is just one of several held at TDCJ facilities throughout the year. In Gatesville, cooking teams compete each fall for the coveted cast-iron skillet awards during the Prison Boss Campfire Cookoff. Meanwhile, the battle over barbecue bragging rights has been waging at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville for nearly 10 years now. The Lewis Unit in Woodville held its inaugural flaming food fest a year ago.

So what makes for blue ribbon barbecue?

“Some people like it sweet and some like it spicy,” Hirsch said. “Different people have different tastes so you never know what the judges are going to like. Even though you may cook the same brisket every time, you may not win every time. But for me, what makes it is moderation; not too much smoke, not too much sweetness, not too much spice. You want it in the middle somewhere.”

“Slow cooking and injection,” added Franks, a past member of the Beans & Franks and Sauce Slingers team who has been cooking competitively since 1995. “Inject your meat prior to cooking it. It comes out juicy.”

“Good wood and patience,” Ferguson Unit Assistant Warden Michael Davis said in short.

Fernandez leaning over open pot and smelling contents
Eastham Unit Security Threat Group Sergeant Irma Fernandez smells the beans that would be judged the best of the competiition while they cooked in her mother’s pot during the Eastham Unit Cookoff in April.
Hirsch won first prize with his maple syrup brisket the first time he entered the Estelle cook-off as a member of the Nelson Creek Cookers in 1994. He had intended to enter a brisket cured in Karo syrup but tried the maple syrup version when a team member returned from the store with a bottle of the stuff normally poured on pancakes and waffles. Later, however, he made the rookie mistake of sharing his secret ingredient with his competitors.

“I let my secret out and the next year almost everybody put out a brisket that had that syrupy taste to it,” he said with a laugh.

But it’s not only what’s poured on or rubbed into the meat that counts, Hirsch said. Just as important is how the meat is cooked. Some cookers like to wrap their meats in foil (Hirsch does because he says it cuts down on the cooking time) while others might leave it naked. Some fire their pits with oak, others with hickory or mesquite. And some grillmasters also favor taking the meat off the pit for a period during the cooking process.

“Everybody always thinks it’s an ingredient but sometimes it’s a method,” Hirsch said about what separates the pros from the pretenders. “There are a lot of tricks you can do right in front of somebody and they don’t even think about it. But it’s going to come down to tenderness and taste. If it tastes good and it’s tender, everything else really isn’t important.”

While Hirsch’s team once won third place at the Walker County Go-Texan Cookoff with a brisket topped with pineapple slices, he says his specialty is ribs, not brisket. He rates Estelle Unit Major Kevin Wheat as being one of the best in the Huntsville area at barbecuing brisket.

“I don’t know what he does, but he cooks a mean piece of meat,” said Hirsch, who also lists Food Service Capt. James Foxworth from the Lewis Unit and members of the Goodman Good Time Cookers from the Goodman Unit in Jasper as tough competitors.

Wheat, organizer of the Bushwhackers team at Estelle, insists that he uses only a store-bought spice rub on his award-winning brisket. He likes to tell people asking for his secret that he uses green wood from a scrub tree to fire his pit, a practice that would, of course, lead to instant indigestion.

“No, I just use the same old stuff I was taught to use,” said Wheat, who picked up tips on barbecuing from Inmate Transportation employees while he was working at the Byrd Unit some years ago. “I just use the rub and then wrap it. I do put quite a bit of smoke in it, though. My briskets cook a whole lot longer than some people’s. I’ve cooked them twelve to twenty hours before.”

While Franks has won skillet awards for his brisket, his Shrimp en Brochette, bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with jalapeno peppers and mozzarella cheese, has been a consistent top prize winner at the Gatesville cookoff. He now organizes the event instead of competing in it, but he has passed his shrimp recipe on to his wife who continues to enter it in contests.

While serious-minded barbecue cooks use plenty of seasonings, secret or not, they shun sauce. In fact, Hirsch says slopping traditional tomato-based sauce on barbecue is as sinful as smothering a T-bone steak in ketchup.
“In a cookoff you hardly find anybody putting sauce on barbecue,” he said. “We don’t allow that as a rule because what we want to know is how you can cook a meat, not a sauce. We’re not chefs, we’re barbecue cookers.”

What’s surprising is that Hirsch, a faithful follower of the Food Network, doesn’t even own a barbecue pit. He always uses one belonging to another team member. Nor does he go out for barbecue often.

“It’s not because I don’t think anybody can’t cook it good, but when we do a cookoff you just get enough of it,” he said. “I don’t even want to smell smoke.”

Hirsch, who often cooks with people outside his team, enters four to five barbecue cookoff contests a year. Entry fees and meat costs run him between $700 and $800, some of which he can recoup in cash prizes by besting the competition. And while teams compete in traditional categories – ribs, brisket, and sausage – organizers often have special categories. At Eastham, for example, cash prizes were awarded for the best margarita and the best dessert. There’s also a Cook’s Choice category that can be anything a cook wants to cook, even if it’s a rattlesnake. Foxworth said one team entered a sautéed cow tongue in the Cook’s Choice competition at the Lewis Unit cookoff last year.

Hirsch, who sticks to conventional cuts, said the most exotic meat he’s actually eaten off the barbecue was goat liver grilled by a friend.

“I’m reluctant to try stuff that might kill you, but that goat liver was good,” he said.

Besides the good food, TDCJ cookers say what they like most about barbecuing is the camaraderie they share at cookoff competitions.

“I get to spend a lot of quality time with a lot of my co-workers and just have a good time,” Wheat said.

“I like getting back to the basics of nature and I think barbecuing is the rarest form of cooking,” Hirsch added. “And it’s not all about just cooking. It’s about socializing, too. If I can go somewhere and have fun all weekend and at the end of the weekend win some or all of my money back, you can’t beat a deal like that.”

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