(CNN) — Big, bold and, some might say, brash, Dallas is the epitome of Texas.
Houston and San Antonio are home to more people. Austin has got its hipster credentials. But nowhere else has helped forge the image of the Lone Star State in the modern imagination quite like Dallas.
Built in the wake of the railroads which helped move the cotton, cattle and oil that powered Texas’s economy, today’s Dallas is defined by its history, yet still forging a path that is different to any other city in the state or, for that matter, the wider USA.
The show that defined a city
The Southfork Ranch still attracts “Dallas” fans from all over the world.
For better or worse, few places have helped shape the world’s idea of Dallas more than Southfork Ranch. The setting for the iconic, eponymous TV series which ran from 1978 to 1991, tourists continue to come from all over the globe to see where the Ewings lived.
Throughout the 1980s, TV “Dallas” informed everything the world thought it knew about this corner of Texas. It helped to pump up an image of glitz and unabashed greed, one where JR, Sue Ellen and the rest lived a life of avarice with attitude. It’s one which endures to this day.
“They were very audacious,” she says of the Ewings. “They were very out there. Very edgy. People loved to think that Dallas was like this.”
Southfork General Manager Janna Timm: “I don’t think there’s another show that’s defined a city… like the show ‘Dallas.'”
Timm says that the show was “somewhat” accurate. But the artistic license used by its creators, of a place that was “out there” and fascinating to viewers, means that she sees visitors to the ranch from all over the world, even now.
“It still attracts [people] every day,” she says, when a walk through the ranch reveals that tourists have come from as far as Turkey and France to pay homage. And it’s not just the living who want a part of Southfork.
“I still have people call every year that want the ashes of their grandmother spread here,” says Timm.
The fact that 350 million people worldwide tuned in on November 21, 1980, to find out who shot JR highlights just how much “Dallas” meant, not just to Americans, but to TV audiences everywhere.
“I don’t think there is another show that’s defined a city, you know, like the show ‘Dallas’ defined Dallas,” says Timm. “It was partly because back in the ’80s, all that Dallas was known for was the JFK assassination. So, when you brought this in, it made it fun. It made it exciting.”
Power and oil
As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. In Dallas, that ranges from monumental historical moments to the oil fortunes that fueled this city.
The real Dallas was the site of a far more sobering act of violence.
JFK’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, remains one of the most distressing moments in modern American history. Almost 60 years on, “where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?” is still a question that those of a certain age can answer with perfect clarity.
What remains striking about Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was shot as crowds lined the streets to greet his motorcade, is its ordinariness. The downtown road leading to the highway, the grassy knoll and the then Texas school book depository, from where it’s said the shot was fired, all have the look of somewhere everyday, rather than a place where something truly monumental and era-defining took place.
So much of the history of Dallas after the Kennedy assassination has been about remembering that dark day, while also reminding those from outside the city that it’s more than that one, albeit major, event.
Publisher Candy Evans: “In Dallas you have it and you show it.”
Dallas’ history and its boom years can be largely tied back to one thing: oil. The discovery of the black stuff helped fuel a boom here, laying the groundwork for the city’s reputation as an ostentatious place, something true before JFK’s death and still true today.
The money the oil brought in created an elite that defined itself by its vast real estate, much like the Ewings at Southfork Ranch, and took, and still takes, great pleasure in showing it all off.
“In Dallas you have it and you show it,” she adds, explaining that the home is a status symbol much like horses and hats used to be in these parts.
“The home is everything. The home is more than shelter. The home says who you are, what you do, who your family is. I mean, it’s just everything. I think that goes back to that frontier mentality.”
That means that whole houses are often made available for Evans to snoop around, bedrooms and bathrooms included. This is all about flaunting what you’ve got, Dallas-style.
“Is everything bigger in Texas?” she asks. “I think our egos are!”
Cowboys and superfans
In the city whose football team claims the moniker “America’s team,” adopting a faith of the truly devoted is the only option. CNN’s Richard Quest steps into the shrine of a Dallas Cowboys super fan.
If bigness is what defines Dallas, then few things sum that up quite like the Cowboys. And not just the historic pioneers that pushed boundaries and helped create this city. Dallas’ football team attracts an obsessive crowd and few are as committed as Jaime Castro.
He even spent money borrowed from his parents for a downpayment on an apartment on Cowboys season tickets. He hasn’t missed a home game in 24 years.
“I was born and raised a Cowboy,” he says. This is about more than football. It’s about community, loyalty and a very Dallas way of being. “There’s a love… it’s brought so much good into my life.”
Dallas Cowboys super fan Jaime Castro, AKA Ballz Mahoney, hasn’t missed a home game in 24 years.
The Cowboys haven’t won the Super Bowl since 1996, so Castro can’t be accused of mere glory hunting. On game day, dressed up in his jersey and decked out in bright Cowboys accessories, he is the very epitome of Dallas.
“It’s who we are. It’s who the state of Texas is,” he says, smiling.
Just being at AT&T Stadium when the Cowboys are playing, it’s easy to see how hard it is to separate the football team from Dallas’ wider identity. It’s all tied up in the way the city is and its views of itself, its confidence and pride on show for all to see.
Cooking up history
Meet the pitmaster who’s cooking up more than a Texas tradition — he’s serving up heart and soul.
Every day, Walker rises early to begin work on his own secret recipes, gathering wood and filling the pits to smoke meat to perfection. For him, it’s personal. His grandfather had his own smoker and taught him the basics.
“Barbecue is in my blood,” he says.
Ads for Texas barbecue joints began popping up in the 1800s. But, says Walker, the history of this now iconic way of cooking goes further back.
“Slaves got lesser cuts of meat,” he explains. “Anything that was tough and couldn’t be cooked easily was handed over to slaves and they dug holes in the ground and put metal over it and made fire pits and they started cooking over coal.”
Derrick Walker: “Our barbecue is Texas barbecue with soul.”
It was in this way, says Walker, that barbecue as we know it was born. It remains a cornerstone of Dallas’ and Texas’ African American identity.
“I coined the phrase Tex Soul, because our barbecue is Texas barbecue with soul,” says Walker. “It is something within the African American culture. We call it soul food, where we cook from the heart.”
Customers are known to arrive early and wait patiently in line for Walker’s barbecue and it’s easy to see why. From his sensational brisket to delicious Coca-Cola cake, word of his food has traveled far and wide.
“I wouldn’t say it’s uniquely Texas because every region has their own style of barbecue,” he smiles. “But I will say Texas does it best!”
Whether in its portrayal in a wildly popular TV show, its vast homes that showcase the oil wealth of its elite, its superb and culturally relevant food or on days when the Cowboys are playing at home, Dallas, much like Texas, is truly out there.
It is confident, but never arrogant. There is a frontier spirit here, a willingness to always push on. It is a city that is larger than life and very happy to be.