About four years ago, Gary Wilson, underground line superintendent for the Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative (GVEC) in Gonzales, Texas, U.S., decided to really transform an old transformer. He and his crew took a discarded 1,000-kV three-phase batten-mount transformer and turned it into a transportable barbecue cooker. Today, the old transformer no longer emits kilovolts but rather the electrifying sights and smells of tasty Texas barbecue.
“We cleaned it out, put in some racks and shelves, constructed a trailer to fit around it and built a smoke pit,” Wilson says of the project. “Every time we think of something else, we add to it. I just thought it would be kind of fun.”
The cooker has turned out to be fun for Wilson and his fellow barbecue chefs as well as for anyone who runs across it at an event.
Wilson got his start in barbecueseveral years ago cooking for various church and civic functions. Once his team built the transformer pit, team members also starting joining in on the fun, volunteering to cook at the utility’s local lineman’s rodeo. In its second year of operation, Wilson’s crew took the pit to the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo and, in collaboration with his wife, Susan, who is also a GVEC employee and serves on the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo planning committee, agreed to provide fresh Texas barbecue for the event’s awards ceremony. That, in turn, grew into a barbecue competition at the rodeo with 26 teams competing this year.
As to what he cooks on the pit, Wilson says, “We don’t give up all our secrets,” but lists brisket, sausage and ribs as specialities. “Jalapeno poppers on the grill are a real appetizer favorite for people,” Wilson adds. “If it’s a piece of meat, we can throw it on and grill it.”
Wilson’s transformer pit has also hit the road, making it to Kansas City a couple of times for the International Lineman’s Rodeo. The first year Wilson’s crew hauled the pit north, in fact, was memorable.
“We were driving through Oklahoma, and it was being hauled in a caravan, trailered behind a GVEC pickup truck,” Wilson recalls. “We passed a state trooper going the other way, and all he saw was a transformer on a trailer with no straps to tie it down. He spun around and came up to us like a bat out of hell. But he didn’t pull us over. He just pulled up along side us, looked at our transformer and shook his head. It was funny.”
“Everybody gets a kick out of it,” Wilson says of the cooker, though not elaborating on whether the state trooper was bemused. “They love to see us cook their food, and they get to meet us electric linemen in a more relaxed atmosphere, find out we are more than just a red truck driving up and down their street when the power goes out. You get to talk to kids and can even have an impromptu little electrical safety meeting with the kids. It’s also a nice team builder for the guys in the underground department.”
Wilson hasn’t branched out into competition barbecue outside lineman’s rodeos, but says GVEC has employees who compete in barbecue competitions. GVEC’s service area —roughly 3,600 sq miles (9,324 sq km) east of San Antonio but west of Houston and stretching down along Interstate 10 in southeastern Texas —is home to about 90,000 electric utility customers. It is also home to some of the country’s largest collections of mesquite trees, which produce a wood that is highly sought after for barbecue.
“We cook with mesquite down here, and there is a lot of it,” Wilson states. “It is all about preference. There are people who cook with hickories and pecan wood and cherry, but we like mesquite — it’s a pretty hard wood, it cooks pretty hot, and because there is so much of it down here, it’s really cheap to get.”
So cheap, in fact, that Wilson always brings extra mesquite with him to Kansas City. “In Kansas City, I have so many people who want to buy it from us,” Wilson says of the mesquite he brings from the Lone Star state, “I always say, ‘come on back in the afternoon, and we will see what we have left.’ I have had guys from New York haul it back home.”
Home for Wilson has always been Texas. He and his wife have both been GVEC employees for 30 years; the two married later in life, and each has young adult children going to school in the College Station area. Wilson plans to keep on grilling and spreading good will about electric coops wherever he can. He’s scheduled to bring his grill to the International Lineman’s Rodeo in Kansas City this October, for instance, where he invites one and all to come on by, take a look at “a [barbecue] pit like no other” and take in the sweet, smoky, tangy smell of true mesquite-fired Texas-style barbecue.