MAYFIELD, Ky. — Professional truck driver Jesse Eddie didn’t help Kentucky tornado victims in the traditional sense of debris removal or reconstruction.
Instead, he hauled hundreds of pounds of meat destined for smokers that transformed it into succulent barbecue. The meals— ribs, pulled-pork sandwiches, beans and many other fixings — helped feed both body and spirit in a time of great need.
A few days after storms ravaged areas of the Mid-South and Midwest Dec. 10-11, Eddie and dozens of other truckers and people who work with Operation BBQ Relief fanned out to help victims and first responders with much-needed nourishment.
Operation BBQ Relief is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was founded in May 2011 in response to a need for tornado relief efforts in Joplin, Missouri.
Competitive pit masters from nine different states answered that first call to help feed displaced families and first responders. Together, they were able to serve over 120,000 meals in a 13-day period in Joplin.
According to the organization’s website, “This experience of building a network to feed individuals in need has been the inspiration for Operation BBQ Relief. To date, Operation BBQ Relief has provided over 9 million meals throughout the United States and internationally following natural disasters, COVID-19 response and, through The Always Serving Project, benefiting the homeless, first responders, veterans and members of the military.”
“A pulled-pork sandwich is much more than a pulled pork sandwich,” explained Stan Hays, co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief. “A pulled-pork sandwich is a symbol of things that are going to happen again. People can remember that last barbecue they had at their house and can see their neighbors having it again.”
Like many others, Eddie watched in horror as news cameras captured the devastation wrought by a tornado outbreak that swept across Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and other areas Dec. 10-11. Dozens were killed, and thousands of homes were destroyed.
According to some weather experts, the historic storm included a single twister that’s believed to have remained on the ground for a record-breaking 250 miles, cutting a swath of destruction at least a mile wide.
Eddie said he knew while watching the news that he’d be getting a call. He always does after such major weather events.
“I want to help any way that I can,” Eddie told The Trucker in mid-December, while en route to one of the hardest hit areas, Mayfield, Kentucky.
Eddie owns Princeton, Texas-based Bigdogg Transportation. He and his beloved Freightliner, dubbed “Claudine,” are no strangers to relief efforts. He’s helped BBQ Relief by hauling meat, a giant cooker and other supplies for the past few years — all in an effort to give back to those in need.
“I just put my regular customers on notice that I need to help these people, and I go pick up products and head out,” Eddie said.
For storm victims like Joe Travis and his family of Mayfield, Kentucky, the comfort of warm barbecue in an otherwise horrific situation is a blessing.
“We are truly thankful for all these folks who want to help us,” Travis said. “We look around at everything we ever knew, and it’s all gone. You’d be surprised how far a good meal can go as far as your morale.”
As for Eddie, he says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am a former athlete, and I look at all the big-time athletes giving back,” he said. “I say, look, I am an athlete, too. I like to give back to the community like they do. I want to help in any way that I can.”
After dropping off his first load in Kentucky, Eddie planned to head back to Texas to pick up another one.
“Me and Claudine have got you,” he said. “We will be there.”
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and raised in East Texas, John Worthen returned to his home state to attend college in 1998 and decided to make his life in The Natural State. Worthen is a 20-year veteran of the journalism industry and has covered just about every topic there is. He has a passion for writing and telling stories. He has worked as a beat reporter and bureau chief for a statewide newspaper and as managing editor of a regional newspaper in Arkansas. Additionally, Worthen has been a prolific freelance journalist for two decades, and has been published in several travel magazines and on travel websites.