Good food, cheer and plenty of small town camaraderie traditionally highlight Payson's annual deep pit beef dinner and softball games.
Last spring, more than 700 persons showed up for the festive benefit.
The profits from the evening, which exceeded $3,000, were donated to the PHS softball program to help coach Will Dunman purchase much-needed items not available in the athletic budget.
The popularity of the evening has local students, parents and fans eagerly awaiting the 6th Annual Softball Deep Pit Beef Dinner, which will be held 4 to 7 p.m. April 18 at Lady Longhorn softball field.
Event coordinator Charlene Hunt is predicting an even larger turnout than in past years.
"We're preparing more (food). People enjoy this evening and want to come out to help the softball team," she said.
In addition to the lip-smacking meal, a pair of softball games is on the agenda. The junior varsity will play at 4 p.m. and the varsity about 7 p.m. The opponent for both games will be the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets.
Since the Jackets are longtime rivals of the Longhorns, the games should provide plenty of revelry and friendly competition.
For the PHS varsity, the outcome of the East region clashes will be crucial to Lady Longhorn playoff hopes. Both BR and Payson are battling for a top-three region finish and a seed into the state tournament set to begin May 2 in Phoenix.
This year SemStream, who Hunt handpicked because, "they have so many local people working for them who are Payson High School graduates and very fine people," is sponsoring the dinner and game. SemStream, Hunt added, "has been very generous with us."
Tickets to the dinner are $5 and available at the door, or by calling (928) 468-1838.
Deep pit cookin'
As much as the evening is about softball and advancing to state, it's the old-fashioned deep pit beef prepared by cowboy cook Albert Hunt that also draws raves from the crowd.
Most who attend find themselves, after the lip-smackin' meal, meandering over to Albert, or his wife Charlene, to inquire about their outdoor cooking secrets.
For many years, Albert cooked the meal in a deep pit at his father-in-law Roy Creach's home on South McLane Road.
Charlene said it was her father who inspired them to begin the deep-pit cooking tradition.
"My dad had been doing it since the 1960s," she said.
After Creach moved from Payson to Utah, Albert began cooking the beef in a pit he prepared near Airport Road.
He normally burns about a cord of oak cooking the meat. The hard oak produces better coals than other types of wood, he said.
After the oak has burned for about eight hours and turns white-hot, Hunt covers the coals with large rocks, then the wrapped meat is set on top of the rocks and the pit is covered with an iron lid.
About six inches of soil is then shoveled on the lid.
After simmering underground for 12 hours, the meat emerges juicy and fork-tender.
The cowboy beans, also a recipe passed down from Roy Creach, are slow-simmered in a 20-gallon kettle and seasoned with a variety of spices.
The Hunts do not serve any barbecue sauce with the meal.
"If it's good beef and slow-cooked, no sauce is needed," Charlene said.
After the meal is prepared, Albert, Charlene and friends take the smoked beef and beans to the dinner site, where it is usually served up to hundreds of hungry patrons.
Another secret to the success of the softball-night dinners is the work of the many volunteers who help serve the hundreds of hungry patrons. Payson Fire Department Captain Toby Waugh traditionally helps carve and serve the meat, while others dish up beans, salad and rolls.
The dinners have long been served at a variety of local events, including the softball team benefits, weddings, pioneer celebrations and funeral receptions.