The Most Important Things...
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.
In the middle of next week, on Wednesday to be exact, will be July 4th, Independence Day, and so I have a few things running through my head that I would like to share.
The 4th, in years past, going all the way back to my childhood has been celebrated in different ways, but like most Americans, we always managed to find a way to shoot of some fireworks. My dad would make sure I had some of the old Black Cat fire-crackers, as did the fathers of my friends, and we were certainly inventive when it came to different ways to blow stuff up. I would draw the line at frogs, lizards and other living things, but my sister’s various dolls, including Barbie herself, were fair game.
There never was much discussion around the family regarding the reason we celebrate with fireworks, or even why we observe the 4th at all that I can recall, but I knew it had something to do with that line about the rocket’s red glare from that song. I’m almost positive that my parents knew what it was all about, but for a boy of tender years, reasons didn’t usually matter… it was the flash of light, the eardrum-busting BOOM, and the fact that we were all watching all of this go on in the skies over Lake Austin that was important to me.
Later in life, perhaps even as early as my high school years, I began to vaguely understand the significance of the day. It had something to do with Pilgrims and Indians enjoying a fine meal togeth… no, wait. That was Thanksgiving. The 4th was when those wig wearing guys with too short trousers and long socks that looked like stockings signed some kind of paper that made this king somewhere pretty upset. Yes… that’s exactly what kind of high school student I was.
As the years went by, I learned more and more of what this special day was all about, mostly by accident and a general unintentional if not unwilling osmosis of different conversations that were happening within my range of hearing. I can assure you that I wasn’t listening… at least I wasn’t listening for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge. Most of my listening effort during these years was born out of mild curiosity of what intelligent people talked about… and it was soon apparent to me that I was still not interested in being such a person. Just pass me another rib or hamburger please… or better yet, one of each. And a cold one to wash it down with, if you don’t mind. And when are the fireworks gonna start?
Even when I moved to Richmond in 1998, where I was so close to so much history, I still didn’t see the point in learning about all that stuff from two and a quarter centuries ago. Doing so would certainly require effort, and we can’t really be putting out effort for something that doesn’t mean a hoot and holler to me and my life in the latter part of the 20th century, now can we?
Over the last decade however, that conversational osmosis I spoke of earlier began to find root, the things I was hearing other people talk about became a legitimate cause for thought and reflection, and I became interested, which scared the crap out of me. I wasn’t ready to become involved. I needn’t have worried just yet because it would still be a few years before I would take any real action on what I was learning. I began to buy books on a few of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson being an early favorite subject, and started putting out not what I would call real effort, but more of a casual effort to educate myself.
Over time, I became more and more interested in how our great country came to be, and how our great country is on the brink of self-destruction. This blog has never been a forum for my own political views, and I would like to keep it that way… but the fact remains that we’re in some serious trouble if things don’t change, and that right soon.
The basic principles that our Founding Fathers relied upon are just that… principles. They are the principles that were used to form our country, to write the Declaration of Independence, and to create the first written constitution the world had ever seen.
These days, it seems to me that these documents, or more accurately what these documents represent, are being trampled on. But it’s these documents that ensured our freedoms and liberties, and it is precisely those liberties I would like to discuss.
Let me climb down off this soap box first.
On the 4th, my family enjoys a day of togetherness, usually at the home of my mom and dad, but this year we will gather at my sister Linda’s house for the day. I will begin to cook at about 10:00pm the night before, usually in solitude but for the smoke, a few bugs, and my blues music which if I have anything at all to say about it will accompany any and all BBQing with which I happen to be involved.
I have my Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Doyle Bramhall, Bo Diddley, Angela Strehli, Albert Collins, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eric Clapton, Etta James, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ray Charles, Little Feat, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Mississippi Heat, Blind Blake, Lou Ann Barton, Bob Dylan, Boz Scaggs, Arc Angels, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Freddy King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Robert Cray, and of course Barbecue Bob. There are many others in my tape and CD collection, as well as on my mp3 player, but by now you get the idea… my blues collection is as varied as men’s ideas on how to cook the perfect BBQ.
A few days before, usually on the 1st or 2nd, I will go pick out the meat that will become our Independence Day meal… a brisket of large size (because we always run out of that first, it seems), some pork ribs, some sausage links, and maybe some chicken legs just to round things out.
Then I get to work.
The first thing that needs to be done is meat preparation. I begin by cutting off some of the fat from the brisket… not necessarily for removal but more for redistribution. This is called “plugging” the meat. I cut into the sides of the brisket with a thin knife and take chunks of the removed fat and shove into those pockets. These added fats deposits add flavor and juices to more of the meat. I also add other things in there along with the fat, but you don’t get to know that. Oh come on… I have to keep some secrets to myself.
Then the brisket is rubbed down with a blend of herbs and spices. This will add additional flavor to the meat and during the slow cooking process will ease down somewhat into the meat. The rub mixture is one that I make myself, and I try to work it into the meat as deep as I can get it. The term “rub” is not a verb but a noun in this case – it’s the stuff that I make and then put on the meat. The action of getting it onto and into the meat would more accurately be described as a full body massage than a simple rub. Yes, brisket and Lynn get to know each other quite well. The only thing missing here would be some kind of Zen music and incents.
The same process is done with the ribs and with the chicken, except for the plugging part. And I have a different rub mixture for the ribs and a different one again for the chicken. Right here is where I can almost hear you asking yourself, “Why the different rubs?” Well, I will be happy to tell you. My own personal thoughts on the subject are as follows:
1. Beef, pork, and chicken are all different kinds of meat so in my mind, they each require different kinds of herb and spice rubs to compliment the meat and create the best flavor. We don’t season all of our other food the exact same way, do we? Then why would we do that here? I think using the same rub on every kind of meat would be like using only Chinese seasonings in and on all of our foods, even when making Mexican meals;
2. We only do this once a year and good food for the event is always worth the extra effort. It pains me when someone says to me “Oh Lynn, that’s too much trouble.” I hate that. I know this may offend some, but what I hear when someone tells me that is “I’m too lazy to do all that work.” I like the process of cooking, I learned to love it a while back, and if it’s not too much trouble for me to do what I do, leave me alone and let me do it. Personally, the more I can do to create something that people will enjoy, the more I like it and the more personal satisfaction I get out of it. I certainly don’t expect everyone to feel this same way I feel, but at the same time I’m not hurting anyone so don’t try to stop me from my own pleasures;
3. If those two reasons don’t make much sense to you, then I will fall back on the old standby, something I learned from my parents at a very young age. When I was a kid growing up in Austin, I never thought I would reach a point in my life when I could use this form of logic and persuasiveness, but I have and so I will use it now. The reason that different rubs are needed for the different kinds of meat is this: Because I said so, that’s why.
Once the meat is massaged into submission, it will be wrapped tightly and stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days until a few hours before time to cook when I take the brisket out and let it come up to room temperature. This is usually when I will make the mop sauce.
I will sit outside in the semi-cool of the night and start the fire in the smoker. Once the flames are started, I will add several pieces of seasoned wood that have been soaking in water for a few minutes to get the smoke going. When the fire is ready, the brisket goes into the pit with the fat slab on the top. This allows the juices from the fat to seep down into the meat carrying some of the rub along with it. And there it sits for two or three hours… and there I sit for that same amount of time listening to my music, enjoying the peace and quiet and the wonderful aroma of the cooking meat, and checking the temperature in the cooking area once in a while, adjusting accordingly if needed.
The cooking temperature is very important and must be monitored pretty closely. Too cool and the meat won’t cook properly, and all the bacteria that are inherently in meats won’t be killed off. This is the reason we are warned not to eat undercooked meats. But just as important as not having the temperature too low, too high a setting will destroy the “low and slow” method of BBQing.
Purists insist that the temperature in the pit not exceed the boiling point of water. In theory, if you don't exceed the boiling point, the natural, flavorful juices will remain in the meat keeping it moist and tender. This is a slow method of cooking. Eight, ten or even twenty-four hours on the pit are the norm. Barbecue, as mentioned before, is never cooked rare. It is always well-done to the center. And while a meat thermometer is essential here for the novice, the pros calculate cooking time by the amount of beer consumed or when the angry wife, or impatient father, or hungry nephew, yells out the window, "Ain't that stuff done yet? These people are starving." I haven’t been a novice for a long time now, and while I used to be a pro, I really can’t refer to myself as one anymore because I have long ago quit drinking beer.
After a few hours in the smoke, it’s time for the first mop. The mop is applied liberally to baste the meat; it is a sauce that is non-tomato and non-sugar. Tomato and sugar will burn even at a low temperature and turn bitter. This is needed because as the temperature is kept below the boiling point to keep the juices from running out, we don’t want the outside to dry out and get all crusty either. So we have a mop that will prevent this.
The mop sauce that I make starts off with beef broth, and then I add more herbs and spices, butter, chopped onions/celery/bell pepper, garlic, some of the rub, (again depending on which meat this particular mop is for), soy sauce and vinegar and lemon juice, and then at the end I add a pound or so of finely chopped soft fried bacon.
And so it goes for about 10-12 hours or so. Turning and mopping every couple of hours, listening to my music, enjoying the peace and quiet and the wonderful aroma of the cooking meat, and checking the temperature in the cooking area once in a while, adjusting accordingly if needed.
About six hours into this, I take the ribs and chicken out of the refrigerator and let them come up to hear room temperature also. When they are ready to go on, I usually cook the chicken in a separate smoker, using the same low and slow method of cooking.
The ribs though, are cooked several inches above the brisket. The ribs will sweat some of the juices out and this is for two reasons: they are thinner and smaller than the huge chunk of brisket, and they are higher in the smoke area and cooking at a slightly higher temperature. This is a desired result for me because I let the rib juices fall onto the brisket to help with the basting which also adds flavor. Ingenious, huh? Of course I didn’t think of this all by my lonesome, but when I heard about it (probably on one of those BBQ competition shows that I love to watch), it just made good sense to me.
And so it goes for another 6-8 hours or so. Turning and mopping every couple of hours, listening to my music, enjoying the peace and quiet and the wonderful aroma of the cooking meat, and checking the temperature in the cooking area once in a while, adjusting accordingly if needed.
By now the sun has come up, people are arriving or waking up, and I am joined by friends and/or family members… ostensibly to seek an audience with me while pretending to actually enjoy my company, but the deep dark hidden true reason for their visit to try to sneak tastes of what lies within the smokey darkness of the pits.
Once they fully understand the futility of these efforts, they sulk off to the comfort of the indoors with its television and air-conditioning and other people not so stingy with their own creations. They just don’t understand that I am truly looking out for their well-being… consuming undercooked meat is a recipe for digestive and intestinal disaster, and we’re not going to have that, not on my watch ! ! !
OK… maybe I was exaggerating a little about their response to my denial of taste bud pleasures. I do get some good company while I am cooking, and I really do enjoy it. A guy can take only so much solitude while cooking, even if he does have Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the others to keep him company along with wonderful aroma of the cooking meat. Good conversation and maybe a game of checkers, chess, or backgammon will always be welcomed.
The sausage is the last to go on, because it takes the least amount of time to cook, even if it is not already fully cooked. I will arrange the sausage all around the brisket, ribs, or chicken wherever I can find space.
And so it goes for another hour or so. Not turning or mopping anymore, maybe listening to my music, but more likely enjoying the company of family or friends, and checking the temperature in the cooking area once in a while, just to make sure while enjoying the wonderful aroma of the cooking meat while arming myself with many sharp tools of destruction to ward off any attempts at unacceptable and frankly, unlawful sneak previews.
Inside the house, potato and macaroni and maybe a fruit salad are being readied, while someone else might be mixing lemonade, fruit punch, or some other kinds of drinks. Side items such as dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, jalapeño peppers, sliced onions and bell peppers, BBQ sauces, and sliced bread are being laid out… the “fixins” that accompany good BBQ. Tables and chairs are being set up, and paper plates (I still maintain that “Chinette” plates are the best for BBQ), plastic forks, knives, and spoons are being put on the tables. Someone should be cooking up some stuffed jalapeños, which I think is an essential accent to any decent BBQ, and someone will probably be warming some rolls in the oven. Are you seeing why I like my position outside now?
When the meat has reached a condition as close to perfection as I am able to achieve, I will remove it from the smoke, mop it one more time, cover it loosely with foil, and let it “rest” for roughly a half hour to allow it to complete the cooking process. Then the brisket will be sliced and arranged on a platter, the ribs will be separated and put onto another platter, the chicken and sausage are deposited onto yet another platter, perhaps two separate ones. The salads, fixins, and everything else is starting to come together on the tables that will be used as serving lines.
And finally, it’s time to eat.
This is what we’ve all been waiting for… this is the finale in the big production. Friends and family,normally cordial and polite people, are looking as though they are at the conclusion of a month long fast, drooling heavily from the mouth with no sense of self-consciousness, jockeying for position with threats of bodily injury by way of plastic knife, knocking weaker members of the family aside to improve their place in line… this is truly survival of the fittest. And while a pack of wild hungry wolves will usually have better public manners than this motley crew of BBQ diners, we do manage to pause long enough to give thanks to our Heavenly Father for the many blessing we have been given by His hand and are privileged to enjoy this day. There will also be a few words about the day itself, what it stands for, and how we are blessed also by the freedoms and liberties to do exactly what we are doing at this moment.
Now we can dig in... and it's over with just about that quickly.
The meal itself is short-lived… usually no more than a half hour or so. My job is for the most part over with. A little clean-up in the cooking area is needed, but I’m usually graciously excused from most inside clean-up duties.
After the meal, people will sit in different areas of the room, some with shirt tails out and pulled over the waist of unbuttoned pants, and we will enjoy the company and fellowship of family and good friends. We will tell stories. I will probably read this very article out loud. Some of us will no doubt make plans for going somewhere to “oooh” and “ahhh” as we watch fireworks shortly after dark. There will be much laughter and good times (good times, good tiiiimes), along with a little sadness for those who are not able to attend for various reasons, (but you know… there’s always next year), and maybe a few tears as we remember those who are not with us anymore. I believe that my grandparents, all of them, would have loved these once-a-year get-togethers. I think that all of my departed relatives will be taking a look at us and longing for the day when we can all be together and enjoy our familial relationships and friendships once again.
When I think about that day, my first thought is that I’m not so sure how great it’s going to be being among all those people, all those loved ones, all those family members, because something would be missing. That’s my just my initial reaction, and it doesn’t last long. Deep down inside me though, where I can stop thinking in temporal terms, and where I instinctively know that this is a part of God’s plan for us, I know better… it will be a great day indeed. And if there is a way to replace what I sometimes feel would be missing, I will find it.
Fireworks would be nice, but not particularly necessary, but if I get there before you, if there is any way possible, and with permission from our Heavenly Father, I will have the meat prepared and the pit ready when you arrive.
In the meantime, there’s always next year… and you’re all invited to join us.