Friday, September 13, 2013

Memories of Barbecues Past

I have been almost haunted lately by the memories of barbecues of my childhood. The smell of wood smoke, chilly air, homemade wine, store bought liquor, dad's moonshine and tobacco smoke.  Dad and I would arrive at the garden about an hour before sunrise to start up the burn barrel and get the pig on. The pig spent the night wrapped in plastic in the back of the truck.  It was tradition to cook pigs in the fall and winter.  Not only because cooking a pig is hot work but also because no one really had anything big enough to store a whole hog in to keep it cool.  

About the time the first firing went under the pig, dad's closest friends would show up and they would light up the home made gas stove in the shed.  It was made from an old tobacco barn burner. That stove is currently in my shed, though I've never once used it.  Breakfast was bacon and eggs with a pot of rice taken right from the pan and put into styrofoam plates, which always suffered minor melting.  The morning was spent loading the burn barrel, shoveling the coals and watching the clock.

Drinking started promptly at noon and not a moment before.  I always assumed it was because it was thought only an alcoholic would drink before noon.  These men took drinking seriously and wouldn't let anyone tell them they had a problem.  By the time the first guest arrived the cooks were pretty well lit and the others played to catch up.  

The pig pickins of my childhood worked like this.  The cooks bought the hog, plates, forks, cups, napkins and such.  The guests were responsible for all drinks, sides and desserts.   As a child I could drink from the chaser supply as long as there was plenty until some other drinks arrived, or I could drink from the water hose.

A couple of hours before sundown the pig would be flipped from skin up to skin down. It was also checked for doneness.  Is the skin crispy?  Is the meat tender?  When you put a knife into the shoulders and hams did the juice run clear?  It was only when I was in my teens did anyone start using thermometers to check internal temperature.

There were very few sober guest and absolutely no sober cooks.  The sober crowd tended to be wives dropping off husbands and children.  Typically they would get a plate and head home.  They would come back about dark to bring their kids and drunks home.

One of the cooks would take point in the serving.  They would pull off the ribs and put them aside for the cooks.  Pretty much all of the meat had fallen off the bones, but they guarded those bones with their lives.  I must have been twelve before I got my first rib bone and that was in payment for my work keeping the burn barrel full of wood.  They would use tongs to pull meat off of the pig and put it in the plates of the guest.  Once everyone got their first plate of pig the tongs were laid down and anyone who came back for more was on their own.

Once everyone had eaten and proclaimed it the "best that's ever been", the plates for the widows and the aged were made.  Say what you will about that bunch of hard drinkers, but they took care of their elderly neighbors.  Strangely enough as drunk as the bunch was and as large of a crowd as it was, nobody ever got mad, and nobody ever got rowdy. They frowned HARD on anyone who did so those people never got invited.  These were "civilized rednecks" not "bikers and criminals".

It was after dark when the last of the guest had left, either driving drunk or riding with their wives.  Those that lived walking distance there, lived staggering distance back.  Dad was usually last out, cutting out the lights, locking the shed door and making sure the lid, drafts, and fire door were closed on the cooker.  It was always cold enough outside that they never had to worry about meat spoiling.

The next morning the cooks would all meet back at about nine in the morning to discover that what meat had been left on the grill had been stolen in the night.  Or so they said.  It was only recently that I started to wonder if they left without realizing how much meat was left on the grill after everyone ate and made plates.  After surveying the damage, they would start a small fire in the burn barrel and heat the pig enough to melt the grease.  They would split up the skin and any meat that could be scrapped off of it.   Of course, if they didn't finish before noon, the drinking commenced but it all got done eventually.  The cooker was thoroughly cleaned and returned to the side shelter.

I was able to put wood in the burn barrel starting when I was about twelve.  I wasn't allowed  to shovel coals until I was in my twenties and that was extremely rarely.  I wasn't allowed to help in ernest until I was in my thirties.  I got to co-cook exactly one pig with my father before he died.  He had nothing but positive things to say about my work, but that didn't mean I wasn't watched with the critical eye of a grizzled and seasoned drill sergeant. 

As the only sober person to witness the entire process from start to finish that ended up making me something of an expert in how they did it.  The only difference between the pigs they cooked and the pigs I cook is.

  1. I'm always sober. (Though I might have a beer to relax after the work is done.)
  2. I cook with charcoal. Wood is a lot more work and I'm not positive the work got that much return for the effort over charcoal.
  3. Barbecue is my passion and my business.  For them it was their love and their hobby.
I try to cook a pig ever year or so for all my friends so I can relive my childhood.  That said my favorite thing in the whole world is opening the cooker for the first time after the meat is done and having people who have never experienced a pig pickin' before come up and photograph it for their friends. That look on their face when they see ALL that meat always makes me smile.  Bonus points if the client ask for the head to stay on.