This past weekend was the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, more commonly known in Houston simply as Cook-off. I did a little math and the first time I visited our team’s tent was 20 years ago. I was 16 and I had no idea that many of the people in that tent would be family, even if we only saw each other for one fun filled exhausting week each year.
Cook-off is always the last weekend of February and along with the Rodeo Run, helps ring in everything that is the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which lasts for the first three weeks of March.
Imagine if they filled the parking lot of your NFL football stadium with decorated industrial tents for 254 cook-off teams to compete. The general public (219,457 people in 2020) can access the tent area, get a plate of BBQ and see the concerts on the main stage. However, each tent is a private party, only accessible by the team, their sponsors and the people they invite. Each tent is all you can eat BBQ, open bar and music. If you’re lucky, you know people and get to tent hop most of the night.
Over the years my dad, my uncle and my husband have worked their way onto our team. It takes several years of heavy volunteering to even be considered. In 2020 Bill started training with the current bar supervisor to take her spot. I also started bar tending.
The bar is our favorite place to be durning Cook-off. It’s fun, it’s fast paced, and when the tent is crowded, it’s also the one spot that isn’t.
In 2020, Cook-off was the last big thing we did before the world shut down for the pandemic.
The week after, I was sitting in the woods, camping with friends for Issa’s birthday when I read about the first few cases in Houston. A few days after I got home they canceled the 2020 Houston Rodeo and announced that Cook-off was the first case of community spread in the fourth largest city in the United States.
Truthfully, my heart stopped. Was it our tent? Did we just infect our friends?
Canceling the rodeo was the moment it all felt real, like publicly, openly really real. It was no longer just the bit of anxiety that had been poking me since I first heard about the virus named after a beer in mid January 2020. Rodeo in Houston is a BIG deal. It’s 21 days of competitions, rodeoing, carnival and HUGE concerts like George Straight, Willie Nelson and Gwen Stefani. Canceling it meant this virus was a bigger deal and that was hard to wrap your brain around.
There in the woods I thought to myself, “two years, this is going to take two years.”
Later that summer, I texted one of my Cook-off team mates Faye, I told her about the camper we were renovating and that I couldn’t wait until the next Cook-off.
In 2021 the rodeo was canceled again, Cook-off was canceled. I knew it, even back in the summer of 2020, I knew it was never going to happen.
Later in 2021 we lost our first team member. A few weeks later we lost another team member. Then in December of 2021, Faye passed away.
Each of their deaths was like a punch to the gut, one on top of the other. Each hurt worse than the last because the pain of them were just stacked right on top of each other. And after so many deaths of friends over the last two years, the pain of loss was just something I started existing with. Their deaths weren’t all COVID related, but the pandemic did steal time with them. I was angry. I was sad. I didn’t cry. I just went on surviving.
In January 2022 we started to discuss Cook-off. It was going to happen, but would it be safe? Was there going to be a new variant? We developed a plan and decided we were as protected as we could be and took the risk.
This weekend, back at Cook-off, back in our tent, seeing faces, hugging people, for the first time since “the before” in 2020, it took everything in me to keep the tears inside my eyes.
We had several WW2 veterans visit our cook off tent. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing and stood and clapped for them when they came in and when they left. My friend, also a veteran, came to me SO excited telling me to come with him to meet them. I told him I wanted to wait for Bill. Really though, I knew, if I met them, having just read the news of Ukraine and Russia earlier that day, I wouldn’t be able to keep it in. I would cry, like an idiot, in front of these wonderful men.
I clapped with the rest of my teammates, but I kept the tears clasped in tight.
Saturday morning we had a little team chat, talking about service for the day. I mentioned to the folks who run our food service line that one of my friends was coming in that day to help volunteer. In that moment it hit me. The last time I had hung out with her and her husband was at Cook-off. He passed away from COVID last year. I eked out the words and immediately had to excuse myself.
I’d released the flood gates.
I stood in the middle of the bar, the safest place I know in our tent, doubled over, and I ugly cried. I let the tears fall straight from my eyes to the ground because I knew my mascara wasn’t waterproof.
All of it hit me at once. The stress of the last two years. The loss of our friends; so many of our friends. The missed lunches, and coffee dates, and last minute drink meet ups. How Bill, Lorraine and I had hustled to get the bar together without Faye, without her knowledge or her connections or her smile or her laugh. I cried because my friend was coming to volunteer without her husband.
My friend Kelsey talked me down. We hugged. I could feel my body still heaving.
Seeing people, seeing their entire faces, hugging people, laughing, goofing off, serving drinks and food and being in a crowd was all wonderful and incredibly overwhelming all at once. We’ll be unpacking the emotions and psychological difficulties we’re facing as a result of this whole pandemic experience for a while.
It’s going to take time and it’s going to take grace with each other. We’re going to need to leave room for people to ugly cry in a bar, to hug a little longer than what used to be normal and need to take breaks from the crowds just to regroup.
We’ve gone through a lot, but our journey isn’t over.