"My momma told me the church was gonna have a celebrity barbecue," recalled Neil "Bigmista" Strawder as he stood heads and shoulders above everyone else in the St. Augustine Episcopal Church's sunny kitchen on Saturday afternoon.
"I said, 'Oh, yeah? Who?' And she said, 'You!'" Strawder roared with laughter.
"'I'm no celebrity!' I told her. And she said, 'Baby, you've been on TV and it wasn't COPS,'" he finished. Everyone in the kitchen was now laughing, clearly happy to welcome back their local boy done good.
Strawder, now best known as the Long Beach, California pitmaster who impressed LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold enough to be included on Gold's list of 99 Essential LA Restaurants and as a contestant on TLC's BBQ Pitmasters, returned to his home on Galveston this weekend for a good cause and some good 'cue.
By 1 p.m., Strawder had already been serving barbecue for two hours, although his friends and family -- as well as members of the congregation at St. Augustine -- had been in the kitchen since 9 a.m. "We cooked 48 briskets and a little over 220 chicken halves. And they're just going out!" he smiled.
The barbecue -- and Strawder's "celebrity" status -- was all to raise money for a new community garden that St. Augustine is planting in the once vacant lot behind its church. It's not the first time that the St. Augustine, the oldest African-American Episcopal church in Texas, has built something amazing for its community, however.
The church, which was founded in 1884, is also responsible for creating St. Vincent's House, a long-running non-profit that serves "the disadvantaged, underserved and working poor population" of Galveston by offering day care, free clinics and food pantries, among other services. St. Augustine has a history of reaching out to its community and its less fortunate neighbors, even if the congregation itself is just barely getting by.
That was the case back in 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston with a vengeance. The church and its parish hall were flooded and suffered heavy damage. Fast-forward to December 2010, and the congregation has built a brand-new parish hall that's now serving as a community center for the impoverished Lasker Park neighborhood and has set its sights on a community garden as well.
Karen Lehr, who has attended St. Augustine for three years now, is a retired librarian from Oklahoma who's embraced St. Augustine and its congregation as her new home. She also happens to be a Master Gardener and a landscape architect, talents that have been instrumental to researching and planning the garden.
Right now, it's only in its earliest stages -- wooden planting boxes have been framed out and soil is the next large purchase that St. Augustine will make -- but it's an important start, considering there are only three other community gardens on the whole island.
"If you'll notice," said Lehr on Saturday afternoon, as she gave a tour of the infant gardens, "there aren't any grocery stores in this neighborhood. You have to drive quite a ways in either direction to reach one," she said as she pointed to opposite ends of the narrow island. "Our hope is that this garden will be at least one source for fresh produce."
Four boxes have already been rented out of a total of 14, with even more people showing interest at the fundraiser on Saturday afternoon in the church's lively parish hall. A high-water mark showing where Ike tore through was a mere afterthought to all of Strawder's barbecue, the singing and the fellowship.
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Strawder, a graduate of Ball High School and a former member of the congregation, was ecstatic to see all the positive attention given to his old hometown. "I got so many classmates here, a lot of food bloggers came down from Houston this morning," he laughed. "We even had the guys who won the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo barbecue contest. They came down and helped us cook."
And as for the burgeoning garden out back, he couldn't be more pleased with the church's efforts. "It's a good cause, building a community garden. It's for the whole community as well as the church," he said, looking around at the members who had welcomed him back.
"It's just great," he smiled.
For more photos from the fundraiser barbecue, check out our slideshow.