On a gray, windy afternoon 10 days before Christmas and a week after the most spectacular snow in the memory of most Central Texans, I’m heading across the flat ranchland east of the Balcones Fault to Rockdale, Texas. I’m looking for Renda Graham, owner and operator of Bad Girl BBQ, a pink flamingo-adorned food truck open for business most Thursdays and Fridays in the parking lot of Stoney’s Liquor.
The only thing rarer than snow in these parts is a 3A State Championship title for the local high school team. It’s been 41 years since the Rockdale Tigers won it all, but as I get closer to town, the quantity of pickups dressed up in blue and gold window paint speaks of a collective hope. “This is gonna be the year!” the windows say, each sporting the numbers and nicknames of the boys who are trying to bring it home.
Hometown spirit seems to flow easily; pulling into the liquor store lot to find Bad Girl BBQ, it’s clear that the frosty weather hasn’t discouraged Graham’s supporters. Even near closing time, there are half a dozen people lined up outside the trailer, shivering in their once-a-year winter hoodies, with more arriving. “This is the best Thursday I’ve ever had!” Graham says as she hustles from her smoker back inside. “I don’t even know if I’ll have enough brisket to open tomorrow!”
Graham is a tiny lady, wiry and strong as hell. A native of Rockdale, she’s spent most of her 63 years training and riding horses for barrel racing. Since May of 2015, almost exactly three years after her husband Bob passed away, Graham has been dishing up her own unique take on Texas barbecue. On this day—instead of her best spurs (engraved with her teenage nickname, “Rowdy”)—she wears a red shorty apron and colorful leggings covered with big-bulb Christmas lights. She speaks with a homey twang, and despite her Bad Girl nom de guerre, she’s warm and easy to laugh.
After serving her waiting guests—all of whom she appears to know by name—she sets me up at an oilcloth-covered folding table behind an adjacent icehouse. She brings out a cardboard beer flat that’s lined with paper towels and loaded with a small mountain of food. “The meatloaf was my mother’s recipe,” she says of the Bucking Bull—a moist slab of smoked meatloaf served alongside homemade mashed potatoes and topped with jalapeño creamed corn. Next to that was an impossibly full basket of brisket and queso-smothered tortilla chips. “The name for the nachos my mother had this Dalmatian that was her best friend, who she called Nacho, so I called the nachos Nacho Mama’s Nachos…and I rodeoed all my life, so we went with that theme for most everything else. The name, Bad Girl BBQ, that’s my husband’s [cattle] brand—the little BG connected. That’s on our gate, and since this was all because of my husband, I wanted to go with that. And I loved the show ‘Cops’! Bad boys, bad boys…” she sings.
Beyond family, horses were Graham’s life up until a few years ago. “I had ridden a few outside horses for people, training them for barrels, and so I worked really hard and rode a lot of horses for a couple of years and then turned sixty and thought: ‘Can’t keep doing this; I’m gonna get hurt.’ ’Cause, you know, you get some broncs…and some outlaws.”
Other than some assistance from her friend Frank Bruford and her older sister Shelley Eanes, who runs the Midway Grocery down the street, Graham does all the work herself—cooking, smoking and running the window at the truck—not an easy feat for anyone, much less someone in their 60s. So why now? “I love to cook,” she says, “and I didn’t have anyone to cook for anymore.”
“My husband was dying of sinus cancer that was very rare,” she continues. “I had to go to work because he had to quit. We own our place, our forty acres, little house and horse barn, but he wasn’t old enough for Medicare. So I went to work riding horses for people in Stephenville. I lost my little sister when she was fifty with diabetes that year; my mother who fought nineteen years with Alzheimer’s two months later. My husband and then my dad, within eighteen months. But it’s not tragic. I mean it was hard, it was so hard I can’t tell you, but you know, the background. I have had truly a blessed life, not financially, just love and faith, and I’m telling you, you get up and go on.”
Graham’s story and that of Rockdale are inextricable. An Alcoa town since the 1950s, that industry left in 2008. In October of this year, Luminant, operators of the last working mine in the area, announced its upcoming departure. “It’s devastating for our little town,” she says. But despite the downturn and her own personal losses—and because of a deep-rooted sense of faith and community—Graham remains hopeful for Rockdale. “People from here, they’ll stay here. Whoever, husbands and wives, they’ll drive wherever they have to to work, but they’ll stay here.”
Maybe just as improbable as Graham’s rise to local barbecue hero is the success of this year’s Rockdale Tigers. Like most other little Texas towns, the high school football team is the ironclad tie that binds, and Graham is excited for the future. “We’re going to State playoffs hopefully after tomorrow night!” she says. “We’re gonna be state champs, 3A State champs! Blue and gold Tigers all the way!”
And lo and behold, she was right. The Tigers beat the Brock Eagles to end a 41-year title drought. “I told you they were going to be state champs!” she excitedly says in a text that night.
If you should find yourself driving through Rockdale on a Thursday or Friday, not only will you find comfort in Renda Graham’s cooking, but you’ll find a town of friendly people ready and waiting to accept you and brag about their 3A title, even if for just an afternoon. “There’s been some big rocks in the road,” Graham tells me, “but you just gotta count your blessings, kick the rocks out of the way and keep on going.”
By Adam Boles • Photography by Nathan Beels
Find Bad Girl BBQ at 1529 W. Cameron Ave., Rockdale, or call 512-760-5664.