Cooking up a conversation
• FD veteran serves barbecue with a smile; Clayton reflects on service, cultural issues
When Steve Clayton, of Fort Dodge, started selling his ribs and chicken to Fort Dodgers in the 1990s, his place of business was a 1971 rusty orange Chevrolet pickup truck.
“I started pulling a camper behind an old raggedy truck — Fred Sanford style (from the popular American sitcom Sanford and Son),” Clayton recalled. “It was a rust bucket.”
The most common spot that Clayton would park his camper to sell his barbecue was in the Mister Money (EZPAWN, 1626 Fifth Ave. S.) parking lot.
Eventually, word got around that Clayton’s ribs were something special and he found a more permanent location along First Avenue South.
Then in 2011, Clayton moved his business to its current location along busy North 15th Street (807).
Now the orange paint isn’t on his vehicle, it’s splashed on the side of the building along with steamboats floating on bright blue water.
“You don’t see many steamboats and it was something I thought would stand out and people would like passing by seeing it,” said Clayton, a U.S. Army veteran. “About five weeks ago I looked at it (wall) again and thought because the building was a dull white. And I wasn’t going to come back this year and a friend of mine said you might as well go back because you ain’t doing anything anyways. And as I was looking at the building — I needed something to brighten it up and I thought orange would. And then I thought might as well put a little water in it.”
Clayton, a 1977 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate, played an unlikely position on the high school football team.
“I was a 170-pound nose guard,” Clayton said. “Smallest nose guard in the division. But I might say I was one tough cookie. I loved football. My three sons were running backs at FDSH and my baby son (Dayson) just graduated Saturday.”
Following high school, Clayton served in the military for 24 years, from 1978 to 2001. He was a cavalry scout, worked in artillery, was a drill instructor, worked in transportation and then retired as a postal clerk.
The military took him to places like Germany and South Korea.
Clayton described his visit to Germany as “one of the best experiences of my life.”
“Seeing a country so laid back and relaxed,” Clayton said. “And 60% of the crime rate there was Americans.”
During a 200-mile trip to Wildflecken in the early 1990s, Clayton recalls experiencing almost every type of weather in one day.
“I had never seen all the seasons in one day until I was there,” Clayton said. “It rained, sleet, snow, sunshine, cold, fog.”
During his time in the U.S., Clayton had duties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“I came home to the guards and just traveled with the guards,” Clayton said. “Then we ended up in a trip to Korea. Volunteered twice for operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. On duty for 30 days with both of them. Then retired out as a postal clerk.”
Service to one’s country through the military is something Clayton believes should be mandatory.
“I think America should have — it’s too late now — these kids 18 years and older should have spent two years in the military,” Clayton said. “We’d have a lot better bunch of kids. Wouldn’t be as much disrespect and lack of love.”
He added, “Not saying the military was gravy because it’s got its problems, too. But I stuck it out, the career deal, the 24 years. Then I started tinkering around, did some construction till I landed a job at Friskies. And stayed with them for 13 years.”
Then in 2008, Clayton worked as a corrections officer at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. He worked there for about seven years.
Clayton’s brother-in-law convinced him to start selling what he was cooking.
“Me and the fellas always would get together in the summer and we would have about four grills going and I just kind of pondered this and threw it up in the air and no big deal,” Clayton said. “I remember my brother-in-law saying if you cook good enough people will buy it. So I’ve fed people from all over and they thought I was pretty good, so here I am. But that time is coming where you start to thinking is it getting close to retirement time again. Because all my sons are occupied.”
In terms of the menu, Clayton offers ribs, smoked chicken, pork loins and beef brisket. Sides include: cole slaw, baked beans, potato salad and cheesy potatoes.
“Everything is cooked fresh daily,” Clayton said. “It’s not instant. Nothing is instant. Everything is (done) with love. I am not a millionaire and I don’t have a lot of money but I love putting out a good product.”
He knows what the customers like.
“It depends on their taste buds,” Clayton said. “I’ve gone through more ribs and chicken than anything. And cheesy potatoes, because they love the cheesy potatoes.”
Over the years, it’s been a learning experience. And Clayton has always appreciated the truth, whether harsh or not.
“Back when I started cooking and I was pulling my motor home behind the old truck and I parked at the old Mister Money pawn shop, this little old lady came there and got half a rack of ribs,” Clayton recalled. “She came back the next day and she said, ‘Clayton I’m gonna tell you something,’ she said, ‘them ribs weren’t any good. I couldn’t eat them.’ I said, ‘well did you bother to bring them back?’ She said, ‘No, I fed em to the dog.’ I said, ‘well you want your money back?’ She said, ‘hell no, I want some more ribs.’ And we started laughing.”
Patience is a good quality to have as a cook, Clayton said.
“Patience and love,” Clayton said. “Got to have a lot of patience with your meat. You’re gonna make mistakes. My customers made me good because when I screwed up they would tell me.”
Not all customers that have come through the door have left Clayton with a good feeling. But it had nothing to do with the food.
“I’ve had people come into the door here and there’s three or four people standing in the doorway and they would stop,” Clayton said. “And I got a bell that rings pretty loud and when they heard my voice and I made it over to the serving window, they would see I’m Black and turn around and leave. And they still do it today. I’ve seen it done this year already. But it’s just a part of life that we have to smile and move on because nobody’s perfect. We may think we are but nobody’s perfect. But I still enjoy the cooking part of it.”
The Lord and love are important to Clayton.
“Everything you do, you have to have a passion,” Clayton said. “Everything is love in my world. And I stick with that. So I try to do the same. Sometimes it don’t always work. Sometimes you can love people and they will still kick you right in the head and walk off and leave you. But that’s just the way the world is anymore. The old people used to say it takes a village to raise the children, that meant everybody looked out for each other. Now days we are so quick to stab each other in the back. That’s why nothing lasts anymore. We’ve got to learn to stick together and that’s not just one race, that’s the country.”