Not many people can claim they started a food trend that's lasted more than half a century but John Drenka of Squamish can - and will. The 95 year old, who says he's "too God-damned old" to still run the kiosk at the annual Squamish Days Logger Sports festival, perfected his beef on a bun recipe for a 1956 equine event in Squamish.
"The original one was for Horse Capades, that was the first time I did it but it took many, many years to put it together to get it perfect," he said during a phone interview from his home in Squamish. "We used to do a load of around 1,200 pounds of meat and we needed lots of it. I used to baste the meat with a two-gallon jug (of his secret marinade) and also everything depended on the fire, getting the coals just right."
After ordering Drenka's long-perfected beef bun at last Sunday's Logger Sports event at the Al McIntosh Loggers Sports Grounds, I knew there was something uncommon about the sandwich. Here was a taste that could inspire future cravings, and at the very least a return to the Logger Sports events. Though the station is now run by the Squamish Rotary without Drenka's presence, volunteers have worked hard to maintain the recipe. It still includes a generous helping of thinly shaved, tangy marinated beef on a big, soft white bun, which can then be decorated with spicy homemade horseradish, relish, ketchup and mustard. The result is a slightly sloppy handful of moist goodness and the kind of meal that appeals to a broad range of meat lovers.
After telling me his recipe is a secret (but that I could hear it if I promised to forget it), Drenka continued with his beef sandwich story. The now-owner and manager of Squamish Mills, Drenka started working there as a teen in 1934. Always big on community, a couple of decades later he dreamed up the marinade, designed the rotisserie on which to roast the 14-pound inside rounds of beef and started setting a Sea to Sky culinary precedent. Today there's a rotisserie spit set up at the Logger Sports Grounds and another at the Squamish Valley Golf Club on Mamquam Road, where it's used for annual tournaments. Drenka's roasting pits are designed to maximize the slow roast of the nine-section spit so that each receives a steady heat blast for a minimum of four hours. The fire pit is 3.5 metres in diameter and over a metre deep and surrounded by a constant waterfall of rain from a hose attached to the roof above to keep sparks in check.
"We check the rounds frequently, cut them off and make sure they're medium rare," continued Drenka of his days running the beef barbecue. "We had a big container full of gravy and the meat was heated so when you got it on your bun with a little bit of the dressing it was really nice and warm with lots of onions... God dammit I'm getting hungry," he laughs loudly.
In an average Logger Sports day the Squamish Rotary roasts around 2,400 pounds of beef and sell it all, often by mid-afternoon. While other concessions offer small snacks to tide the hunger, the barbecue beef buns are undeniably the main attraction and Drenka isn't shy about his culinary legacy.
"There's no doubt about that, I got that (reputation) years and years ago," he said. "I got the Rotary to take it over because it was getting too big for me. I handled it myself through the office for about 25 years and then I thought 'what the hell,' and Rotary agreed to take it over and they've been doing a damn good job too."
Drenka's impact in Squamish goes beyond food. The Historical Society released a documentary on his life, titled The Legend of John Drenka earlier this year but his wife Colleen says the really important stuff happened behind the scenes.
"And then he got married to a wonderful wife and had seven wonderful children and they're all living in B.C. and we've been married 64 years," she said with a laugh after stealing the phone from her husband. "I had to say something, he doesn't brag about his wonderful wife who fed him and clothed him all these wonderful years and he's still living so I must have been doing something right!"