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Growing My Own Field To Play In

Don feels that his business reflects a lot of him now. You walk around his restaurant and you'll find all parts of Don's life hanging on the wall, ceiling or at the bar.

Don Elkins
Master Barbequer

What used to be a white cowboy hat, now was covered with grease and black soot. The man under the hat had long white hair and white beard. He was wearing an Indian-beaded western shirt, jeans and boots. "I'm not a cook or a chef, I do BARBECUE," according to Don Elkins, owner and Barbecue Master at Central Texas Barbecue in Castroville. He describes himself as a country boy who has grown his own field to play in. (writer note: I wasn't sure what Don meant, but as he began to relate his life, it appeared he used information and skills that he learned from others as his seeds to influence and adapt his future life which grew from those seeds, namely his BBQ business.)

Sixty-three years ago, Don, the eldest of eight children was born in Red Rocks, Texas, a small "Trail" town in Central Texas. (A town built because of crossing of roads for cattle being driven up from King Ranch in South Texas.) His daddy, Andrew Jackson Elkins, was a "gandy dancer or snipe" with the Missouri Kansas Texas RailRoad (MKT). He put gravel on the road, put rails on, drove the spikes through the rails and worked on bridges that covered the South Land (near South Central Texas, about 35 miles from Austin in the Lost Pines of Texas.) Don, his mama and daddy and 7 brothers and sisters lived in a two room shack next to the railroad tracks with a railroad tie serving as their front stoop and the sound of steam engines lulling them to sleep. He went to school for the first 8 years in a one room school house with 36 other students. His favorite book was "The Call of the Wild."

Don started working when he was 6 years old picking cotton to earn enough money to buy his first pair of pants. He hasn't stopped working since. He remembers trapping for pelts when he was around 8 years old and selling them for 25¢ a piece to help out his family. He remembers taking baths in black pots, #2 wash tubs and using the local creek for bathing as well. He remembers how boiled and fried squirrel, rabbit and dove tasted. Beef wasn't a choice since there wasn't any refrigeration. Whatever was caught had to be eaten the same day. He gathered beer cans and old NeHi soda bottles into toe sacks (gunny sacks) and turned them into the local beer joint owner. He likens his early life to "The Grapes of Wrath." His daddy instilled in him the pride of hard work. He also learned through his growing up years how wise it was to listen to his elders. He would listen, he would learn and he would store information away until some time when he would need it. It was an exciting time when the town's grocery decided to sell ice. He turned a shed into an ice house, purchasing 500 lbs of ice and sold it in blocks to customers. When Don's dad bought his first 10 lbs of ice, his family felt like the happiest people in the world. They made kool aid and ice cream for the first time. Later, this same grocer had the opportunity of getting beef, butchering it and keeping it in the ice house. This innovative grocer also decided he would barbeque this meat so he could sell it as well. He came up with a barbeque pit that would smoke the meat until it was thoroughly cooked. Don worked with the grocer and learned how to do barbecue Texas style in 1949 when he was eleven. It was another way for him to bring home not only money for his family, but some extra food as well.

As the years went by, Don was getting the feeling of "wanderlust" and persuaded his mother to sign the permission papers for him to go into the army when he was 17 1/2 years old. This started a whole new life for Don. In 1956, he took his Basic Training at Fort Bliss, Texas and later was sent to Fort Devens, for Intelligence Training and spent a total of 12 years in the Pacific in Intelligence. He served as a Communications Sergeant with the Special Forces in Vietnam in 1968, 69 & 70. He retired from Fort Ord, California in1976 and speaks fondly of those years. He feels he learned how to interact with all kinds of people in the service, learned what it meant to be patriotic. He admits even now that it's easy to make him cry when he talks about patriotism. He admired the Korean Vets who trained him. While Don speaks about his own military experience, he flashes back to the time when he was a kid watching the WWII tanks and railroad cars filled with soldiers rolling by his shack. He remembers the feeling of wanting to go with them.

Don is the father of two sons, his eldest is grown and works at Earthlink. His youngest, from his second marriage is 13 years old. When he retired from the military, he had to find a new line of work. So, he reached back to one of those seeds that had been planted back when he was eleven years old and decided to open up a Barbecue place. He knew what it took to barbecue Central Texas style.

Don and his wife, Janet on the wine labels at his Barbecue Restaurant.

Don and his wife, Janet started up The Central Texan Barbecue seventeen years ago. For the past ten years, he's been at his current location. Don uses Live Oak wood for the Barbecue, using the thin bark wood which he gets from Santa Cruz. Its expensive, but is the main part of his recipe and adds the right flavor. He has to keep the fire going 24 hours a day. It never goes out. The meat cooks for 20 hours and there's another pit inside the restaurant which he uses as a warmer. He serves Ribs and Brisket. Don is very particular about the quality he serves at his Barbecue. If the meat does not meet his specifications, it is thrown back into the freezer. Not many people know that this generous Barbecue Master donates all his "thrown back" meat to soup kitchens in this area and other charitable agencies who feed the poor. He's been doing this for the past ten years. Don says once you've tasted the Texas-style Barbecue, you have to have it again and again. He was a favorite with Fort Ord soldiers when Fort Ord was up and running. He's still a favorite by the Post Naval Graduate Students, DLI (Defense Language Institute) students, Hartnell and Monterey Peninsula College. He really enjoys working with young people. You'll notice that when you come in to his Barbecue that mostly everyone he employs is a young man or woman, usually bilingual. "I was more introverted back when I started my Barbecue," says Don about his first days in the business. "I was embarrassed to talk to people." "I did learn a little about talking in front of people while in the Military, but it was different in my own business." Don feels that his business reflects a lot of him now. You walk around his restaurant and you'll find all parts of Don's life hanging on the wall, ceiling or at the bar. When Don's wife died in 1996 from bone cancer, he had promised her he would teach their son responsibility using their business as a tool. Don's tender heart shows when he speaks lovingly of his wife and young son. "On the day my wife was buried, we lit a candle in her memory. My son, Chris and I have kept it burning ever since. Whenever the candle is down to about an inch, we remind each other to replace the candle. It keeps Janet's spirit close to us and has been a comfort to see its glow when we come in front work or school." He is very proud that his grown son, from his first wife, and his youngest son communicate via email and maintain a good relationship.

Don working at his Barbecue. "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" says Don. END
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