HEMPSTEAD, Texas – One of the great features of most college campuses is that they are located in small towns. All across America, you can find a gem of a place of matriculation nestled into a scenic location. Sometimes rustic. Always charming and invigorating.
Places with familiar names. Corvalis, Ore. Auburn and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Lawrence, Kan. State College, Pa. Oxford, Miss. Stillwater, Okla. Provo, Utah. Clemson, S.C. And, of course, the favorite of so many of us — Athens.
There are major college campuses in big cities — Minneapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles, for example. If you matriculate at the University of Pittsburgh, you may have to ride an elevator to class. No benches on which to rest and relax between classes among the flowers and the chirruping of birds! I’d feel shortchanged in that environment.
What is so refreshing about the small-town college scene is the countryside that ushers you to the middle of the academic compound. Farms and fields. Autumnal colors, baled hay dotting the landscape and in this part of the country, Brahma cattle grazing near a stream. Small towns near college towns are populated with down-home folk who have pride in the local college, although the liberal contingent found on many campuses is something you’d never bump into in the countryside.
When you are headed to College Station, home of Texas A&M, from Houston, you get off the main road, U.S. 290, and take a state road, Texas 6, to your destination. The first business you will see after the exit is Hill Country B-B-Q, and the first person you are likely to meet is the proprietor, Dan Hill.
All good experiences warrant encores — even when the settings are different. You know that you will come back this way again. Dan believes once you eat his barbecue you will want to return for another slice of whatever he is cooking — beef, pork or chicken — smoked to perfection over Post oak, mesquite, or pecan wood.
The next question — “Which wood is best?”— brought an interesting answer: “It’s all good and not many people can really tell the difference.”
If I had a choice, I would take mesquite. Although I am not a connoisseur when it comes to barbecue, I find a lift in my spirits when I eat anything prepared over mesquite wood. It just sounds like the meat ought to be better. Makes you think about being out on the range where there is a campfire with dinner being prepared in an atmosphere that is as Western as Bum Phillips’ cowboy boots.
Dan’s place is about as down-home as you will ever find when you are searching for a place to eat. Todd Blackledge, the CBS announcer who has written a book about places to eat when visiting college campuses, has stopped by. The way I got that out of Dan was when he asked his wife, Jo Ellen, “What’s the name of that tall feller who is a TV announcer who comes here to eat our barbecue?” Mike Leach, the former coach at Texas Tech, stops in, even now that he is coaching at Washington State in Pullman, Wash.
George Bush, the 41st president of the U.S., has dined with Dan and Jo Ellen and there is a photo on the wall to confirm the patronage of the former president. “We are,” Dan said proudly, “the only place he comes to eat barbecue ribs.”
On game days, Dan cooks more than 750 pounds of barbecue. One student group on a recent Saturday sent for 300 orders of their favorite barbecue. There is a homemade sign over the cash register, which, Dan says, appeared in the movie, “Lonesome Dove.” It reads, “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium.” Outside there is a chuck wagon, which he also says has been used as a prop in a few Western movies.
If you go searching in a big-city locale for a college-campus hangout with a down-home feel — like what you find at Hill Country B-B-Q — you will likely go hungry.
Loran Smith is an administrative specialist for the University of Georgia sports communication department. You can reach him at email@example.com.