Sometimes, the only place to start is at the beginning.
In early January 2010, a large manilla envelope came to me in the mail from the federal prison in Fort Worth. A reader commented on a story I had written for The Dallas Morning News about the Posse’s very first barbecue tour, to the Central Texas BBQ heartland.
“It’s all good,” the reader wrote. “‘But’ have you really tasted the best barbecue in Texas?”
The reader said his name was Clyde Biggins and that he once owned “Clyde’s Old Fashion Hickory Smoked Barbecue” on Westmoreland Road in Dallas.
“‘Note,'” Biggins wrote. “I made a bad choice that landed me in prison — conspiracy with illegal drugs. ‘No’ I never used drugs or alcohol. That was in 1993. I have paid my debt to society and I’ll be free … a few days after you receive this letter.”
Reporters often get letters from convicts, sometimes in multi-colored inks and with elaborate handwriting.
Clyde’s letter was plain and simple. He included some of his background. He said he and his mother both had once worked for West Dallas barbecue legend Chester Hardeman.
Clyde said he started his first joint in the late 1970s and he explained his cooking methods. He stacks his ribs on the pit, slowing the cooking and allowing juices to cascade down, keeping everything moist.
And he touted his product. His brisket, Clyde wrote, is so tender that you can leave your false teeth at home.
He also included a few newspaper clips to prove he was legit.
“At Clyde’s,” a reviewer for The News wrote in 1981, “the meat is perfumed through and through with hickory smoke. It is so good that the sauce, which is less sweet than most — and good — is almost beside the point. What’s more, Clyde’s has the best soul and blues jukebox around. A can of Coors (bring your own), a plate of ribs, and B.B. King’s ‘The Thrill is Gone’ on the jukebox — what more could you ask?”
Clyde’s letter finished strong.
“I’ve paid my debt to society and I’m praying for a new start,” Clyde wrote. “I’ll be back smoking out the city with hickory wood the old fashion way.”
One of the old newspaper clips Clyde included was a photo of him and his wife, Loretta. The cutline said that the Biggins children, including the oldest, Lisa, worked at the family’s restaurants, which then numbered two.
Lisa Biggins? I knew Lisa Biggins. She’s an office manager and receptionist for the Metro staff at The News.
“Did my dad really write you?” Lisa said when I approached her. “He said he might.” She confirmed her father’s story and his determination to get back to barbecue.
I wrote Clyde back, wished him luck and said we’d stay in touch. We did. After getting out of prison, he stopped at the paper a couple of times to talk barbecue.
At some point, I researched his conviction. In June 1992, Clyde was among 34 people charged in an alleged conspiracy involving drug trafficking and possession, firearms violations, money laundering and other financial crimes, according to a report in The News. Clyde was convicted in February 1993.
He spent nearly 17 years in jail.
From my talks with Clyde and Lisa, I could tell that his re-entry into society was taking longer than he expected. But finally, about a year or so ago, Clyde started selling barbecue again from a portable pit.
He put out a flyer advertising “Clyde’s Rolling Barbeque.” Combo plate $9.00. Rib sandwich $6.00.
“Call, text , or email for pick-up,” the flyer said.
Does he have all his permits, I asked Lisa. She said no.
I’d like to write about him for the Posse blog, I said, but he has to get legal. If not, as soon as we write about him he’ll get cited. And the hurdle is high to meet all the approvals necessary for roaming food stands and wood-burning pits in the City of Dallas.
Business was pretty good. Clyde later told me that he was working all he wanted — 3 or 4 days a week — and bringing in up to several hundred dollars a day.
But someone eventually turned him in. Clyde was cited and told to stop selling.
“They were nice about it,” Clyde said. “They said they wouldn’t normally have done anything, but someone complained.”
That brings us to a couple weeks ago when Clyde called and said he wanted to invite the Posse to eat some of his barbecue. He said he was thinking about getting a truck certified for serving hot food and he wanted our opinion of his barbecue and any other ideas we might have for him.
We set the date for last Friday, just after noon. The day before, I told Lisa that her father was really talking the talk, and we were anxious to see if he could walk the walk.
Tell your dad that, I said. She laughed.
When we arrived shortly after noon, 10 strong, Clyde had his rolling pit set up near his home. Portable tables, with table cloths were nearby.
The smoke smelled great.
And the food — ribs, brisket, sausage — was great. Moist, tender, perfectly cooked meat with fine smoke flavor.
I told Clyde that if he opened a joint in Houston he would immediately be serving the best barbecue in that town. The Posse recently toured Houston joints and was disappointed.
“Clyde’s the real deal,” Posse member Jim Rossman said. “The meal I had would easily rank him in the top 5 among DFW BBQ joints, plus he has a great personality. That’s a winning combination.”
Two Dallas policemen stopped and Clyde filled to-go boxes for them.
Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper said Clyde could outcook many of the great young guns of Texas barbecue and probably some of the oldtimers, too.
“Watching Clyde work that pit was like watching a great conductor lead a symphony,” Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins said. “No thermometers, gauges or gimmicks. It was old school cooking by feel alone.”
Clyde had a big smile on his face. Not yet 70 years old, he said, he likes to see people enjoying his food.
“So, Gary,” Clyde said. “Did I walk the walk?”
“Yes, you did, and more,” I said.
Clyde, an even bigger smile on his face, fist-bumped me and other Posse members.
Sitting around later, we talked about what Clyde should do to meet city codes for cooking and selling barbecue. Someone suggested that he give away the food and put out a tip jar for “voluntary” contributions. Another person suggested that he lease a food truck — rather than buy it — to test the concept. Someone said an existing joint — Lockhart Smokehouse? — should use Clyde as a celebrity guest pitmaster.
Clyde said he would consider everything and keep looking for a way to get back in the business. As we left, a pickup truck stopped and the passenger asked Clyde if he had any barbecue left. Yes, he did. We didn’t look to see if any money changed hands.
All in all, it was a wonderful afternoon. All we lacked was B.B. King on the jukebox.
Photos ©Michael Ainsworth