Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Quick Hello

Greetings from Xocenpich, in the Yucatan. Here I am trying to find a new face. I´m okay and will write more later next week when I am back home (at which time I´ll catch up with everyone´s blogs.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Inappropriate Cards (today and yesterday)

I left North Carolina late in August, 1986. A change descended as I left the world of fulltime work and home ownership to return to school. Looking back on it all, it was either an act of faith or great stupidity. After all, I was rather comfortable in my life. I'd had a succession of girlfriends, a house with apple trees, a canoe with streams of white water just out of town, my beloved Appalachian Mountains just an hour’s drive away and the beach five hours to the east. I gave it all up to cross the Mason Dixon line and enroll in school in Pittsburgh, a place known for cold winters, smoky steel mills and a pretty sorry baseball team. By the time I’d arrived, Roberto Clemente was long been dead and Willie Stargel had retired. As I left the South with everything packed in a car including a bottle of decent Scotch (given to me by coworkers who said I’d need it to keep warm), I promised everyone I’d send my new address and phone number when I got settled. I’d only been in the Steel City for a few days when I came across a “historical” post card of the city. The photograph, taken on a midmorning in April 1911, looks toward "The Point.” At that time, The Point was a rail yard and the air so smoky that you could only make out the shapes of buildings. This was at the period of history that executives would take an extra shirt to work with them and change at lunch, their first shirt being dirty from the air. The photo looked so dirty, an image a lot of my friends had of Pittsburgh, so I brought a stack of the cards to send out to friends and family. On the back I wrote a simple note, “Having a great time, wish you here,” and added my address and phone number.

Thursday is Inappropriate Card Day—a holiday thought up by Diesel over at “Mattress Police. I want to get in on this holiday while the gettin's good and before Hallmark ruins another holiday in their attempt to commericalize every single day of the year. But there's a problem. On Thursday, I’ll be flying south to Cancun (and then riding through the jungles for a few hours in the back of a van). Before I go, I'm gonna clean out my card drawer in my desk (old dated Christmas Cards, Hanukkah cards, birthday cards, get out of jail free cards, whatever I can find). As I travel and listen to Pink Floyd on my iPod, I'll address them and maybe even write notes in them. There are a few folks who need to receive a such a card. And because I won't mail the cards till I get back in the states, these cards will arrive long after ICD, just like my Christmas Cards (which generally arrive at their destination sometime between New Years Day and the Fourth of July).

Surprise someone and send out your own inappropriate card! This is a great opportunity to clean out desk drawers and recycle. Didn't Obama say something this evening about going green? And just imagine the look on the face of one opening your card and thinking “WTF” (can someone explain to me why folks always seem to think of the World Tennis Federation on such occasions?).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

China Road: A Book Review

I haven’t been into writing much lately. Instead, this weekend, I did things like make a big pot of split pea soup and sat by the fire reading as the snow reappeared (but since we lost most of our snow, there isn't enough to ski).
Rob Grifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Blackstone Audio, 2007 release), 10 hours and 37 minutes.

What a better way to end a chapter in your life than to hitchhike across country. Rob Gifford time in China, as a reporter for NPR, is coming to an end. After packing up his family and sending them back to their home in Great Britain, he sets out to cross China on Route 312, the “Mother Road.” His journey leads him from Shanghai and the highly industrial east, through the Gobi Desert and various ethnic regions and on the Kazakhstan. Traveling with a backpack (and a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), he utilizes all forms of transportation—hired cars, buses, and trucks—to make the trek. As he travels, Gifford draws upon his understanding of the complexity of this vast country, providing the reader lessons in history, religion, language and economics. He continually comes back to the question of what China’s future holds. Acknowledging the positive changes since the death of Mao, he sees great possibilities as well as dangers in China’s future.

Gifford often travels off the beaten path. He visits farmers who’d sold blood for plasma and are now infected with AIDS. On the road in a bus, he talks with a physician and nurses about China’s one child policy and the horror stories of forced late-term abortions including the rumors of children who survive the abortion procedure being drown. In one town, he meets two men who are dressed in ties (a novelty on the desert frontier) and discovers they’re distributors for the Chinese branch of Amway. Astonished, he attends their evening meeting where they tout their luck at selling mouthwash to a nation of garlic eaters. They also proudly proclaim that all the Chinese Amway products are all made in China. One Sunday, he spots a church and decides to visit. The congregation’s pastor doesn’t show up and they convince Gifford to speak. Later, in the Gobi, Gifford spends the night in the dunes, sleeping on a mat and watching the colors of the day fade and the beauty of a desert night and the next day’s sunrise.

My favorite part of Gifford’s tale is the time he spent in the ethnic regions of China. Although the vast majority of the country’s population is Chinese, they mostly live in the eastern portion of the country. As one travels further west, in the less populated areas, the people are not ethnically Chinese. He discusses how modern China, like the dynasties of the past, has tried to woo the ethnic areas. Ethnic Chinese who tour and vacation in these areas see stereotypical views of colorful dressed natives serving exotic foods and performing traditional dances. Gifford find that they’re always dancing interesting, reminding him of Native American tourists’ villages in America.

Gifford explains both sides of China’s vast empire. Certainly China herself doesn’t see it as an empire, but many of the ethnic people do. China tells their nation’s history in order to reflect the party’s stance that the ethnic areas have belonged to China for 1000s of years even though that’s not accurate. His exploration of the ethnic areas provides him an opportunity to discuss the Chinese language. To those of us in the West, the language seems complex, but isn’t really, especially once one gains a basic understanding (there are 200 radicals that make up the characters that one must learn). He notes that in the past, those who lived west of the Great Wall (in the ethnic areas) were labeled with the same Chinese character for a dog. But in the 16th Century, after the Chinese reoccupied these territories the last time, they changed the character in an attempt to relate better to the people there. Gifford also notes that although the Chinese expanded west, that they their haven’t become a conquering power elsewhere and in the 15th Century, the emperor had what was probably the greatest fleet at the time burned, for he wasn’t planning on being a naval power. Unfortunately, for China, the next challenge came from the sea as the Western world made their way to the region.

Gifford interest in China came from reading the stories of missionaries to the nation. He first visited the nation as a student and has come to love the people and the complexity of the country. But he can’t help but wonder if China isn’t condemned to repeat itself. Chinese history is filled with examples of the people revolting and those who obtained power eventually becoming corrupt while ignoring the needs of the populace, which sets the seeds for another revolt. In many ways, the Communist Party (which today has little to do with Marxist economics) is just the latest in a long string of corrupt national leaders.

I listened to the audio version of this book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Trains, hiking and memories...

You may remember that back at the end of the year I spent some time in the Georgia Mountains, staying at a lodge at the approach trail to Springer Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. I mentioned in my post that it’d been a while since I’d been in that country—this is my story of heading there the first time, in the summer of 1985. The photo to the left was taken in front of the falls in late December. The second photo was taken from a ride somewhere in the Georgia or Southern North Carolina Mountains, back in '85. This story really is more about my first adult train trip in the US. Since taking the train to the trail in '85, I've covered over 21,000 miles of Amtrak track (and much of that track I've covered many times). I've written about this two week hike twice before. One blog was about a man we named "Cornbread." The second blog was about another interesting character we came across while hiking this section of trail. In the second story, I changed the names.

I wait, my backpack resting against my thigh, and look up the tracks for the lights of Southern Crescent. The night air is heavy, warm and moist. It’s 1:30 AM and the train is 30 minutes late and I tell my friend that she can go home if she wants. But she, like many of the others who have brought friends and family to the tracks, waits. We make small talk. Finally, a light is seen in the distance, growing brighter. The locomotives blow by, as if the train is going to pass us by, then the metal wheels squeal and the train comes to a stop. An attendant steps off, sits out a stool and those of us waiting make a line and begin to climb aboard. I give Paula a quick hug and thank her again for the ride, shoulder my back and board. A minute later, the whistle blows, the attendant picks up the stool and boards the train as the cars jerk and continue their southbound run through the night. Next stop, Spartanburg, but I’ll be asleep by then.

I stow my pack overhead and take a seat next to a man who’s already fast asleep. A few minutes later the conductor comes by and collects the $30 for my ticket. I lean back my seat and close my eyes, attempting to sleep to the swaying of the car and the clicking of the wheels. Although tired, I'm also excited. I haven’t been on a train in the United States since I was a kindergartener and my class rode the Seaboard Coastline from Southern Pines to Vass. Or was it Cameron? Tonight, I’ll ride a couple hundred miles through the Piedmont, from Gastonia to just north of Atlanta. I watch as we race through small towns, the lights of the crossbars and the stoplights blinking on deserted main streets. Finally, I finally fall asleep. A few minutes later I wake up shivering. The AC is running full blast and the car is cold. I grab my sleeping bag from my pack, unzip it and wrap it around me for warmth and fall back asleep. A couple hours later, the attendant shakes me, informing me that my stop is in just a few minutes. The guy next to me is awake and he asks if the lounge car is serving coffee yet. Not until 6 AM, he’s told. I stuff my sleeping bag into its bag and secure it back to my pack, and then sit back down to wait.

I chat a bit with the guy beside me. He boarded the train in New York and is going home to Mississippi. He's curious as to what I’m doing on the train with a backpack. I tell him that I’ll be meeting friends in Gainesville and we’re heading up into the mountains to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. I learn that he’d grown up in the South, but like many African-Americans of his age, he had to leave if he wanted decent work. I don’t tell him, but as he’s telling his story, I’m reminded of photograph a friend had taken in the mid-60s. Phil was working for the Charlotte Observer at the time and caught on film the faces of three black boys looking out of the window of a northbound train. He titled the work, “Chicken Bone Special,” a nickname the Southern Crescent earn as hardworking families from the Deep South, with little money in their pockets, would head north for work with a basket of fried chicken to tide them over.

The sky is pink when I step off the train at Gainesville. A sense of loneliness and abandonment washes over me as I walk across the platform as the train pulls away, resuming its journey toward Atlanta, then Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Hattiesburg and on to New Orleans. I can tell right away that this isn’t the best part of town. The rails run between industrial buildings, many abandoned, with their dark windows reflecting the morning light. Those who got off the train with me are all met by friends and family. Soon, I’m the only one left. A cab driver asks if I want a ride, but I tell him that I'd be meeting friends later in the morning, but ask if he knows where I can get some breakfast. He points to a diner down the street and I head that way. Going in, I’m aware of the stares, as drop my pack on one side of a booth and sit in the other a big breakfast: poached eggs, corn beef hash, toast and plenty of hot coffee. As I eat, I pull out A Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut and begin to read. I stay, long after finishing my breakfast, drinking coffee and reading. It’ll be noon before Reuben and his brother are to arrive and pick me up at the train station. I have plenty of time to kill.

I sit in the diner for a good 90 minutes, waiting for the sun to get up into the sky, before heading out to see the town. I walk around and find a park where I place my pack against a tree, using it as a backrest, and sit, continuing to read. Later, as the stores begin to open, I spend time looking at antiques. It’s a safe hobby as I’m surely not going to buy any to add to my pack. I head down to the train station an hour early, thinking I can find a bench there to sit and read, but am surprised to get there about the same time as Reuben and company. He’d hired the janitor at his law office to drive them in his wife’s station wagon. I dump my pack in the back of the wagon and crawl in the backseat. We make a short stop for burgers, and then drive toward Amicalola Falls. The Appalachian Trail begins at the top of Springer Mountain, but it requires a hike to get to Springer. We skip the falls, as we take a Forest Service road that takes us within a couple miles of the Springer. We unload and say goodbye to our chauffeur, shoulder our packs and hike off into the woods, not stopping till we get to the bronze plaque bolted on rock, identifying the summit. We stop long enough to take a few photos, and then head down the trail, following the white blazes toward Maine.

Reuben and I are out for two weeks, and won’t stop till we reach Fontana Dam at the beginning of the Smoky Mountains. Bill, his brother, will hike with us the first week, getting off the trail just south of the North Carolina border, where his wife will pick him up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The woods of my childhood: a rambling memory (or, why I love winter)

This memory of childhood answers the question that many have for me, “Why do you like winter?” It’s true, I do love winter, and look forward to getting more snow this afternoon. That said, should I admit that I’ll be heading to Central America in two weeks?
I was blessed to be raised where there was plenty of elbow room. When I was nine, we moved back to North Carolina, outside of Wilmington. It was 1966 and the urban sprawl that has ruined the South and much of the rest of the country hadn’t yet reared its ugly head. I suppose we were the first wave of that sprawl. We were in a new subdivision, but the development hadn’t really taken off. In all, there might have been 15 houses in the whole area. The downside was that there were no friends that lived close-by. But that was counter-acted by the vast woods that stood behind our home. It was years after I’d left home before roads dissected those woods and houses replaced the forts and hideouts my brother and I built.

The woods were divided into two types of habitat. The high ground was sandy soil and quite open, with longleaf pines and wiregrass and an occasional scrub oak. Traveling through this area was rather easy as there was not much undergrowth and there were old two-track trails running through the woods we could follow when we wanted to make good time. Separating the woods were the low, swampy areas. Elevation was rather relative and one wouldn’t need the full length of a yardstick to measure the difference between the high and low ground. A large swamp separated, maybe a hundred yards behind our house, separated the woods and to get further back into them, one had to walk around it. Later, my brother and I, along with friends, would cut a path through the swamps that we could use during dry spells, but that would be a few years off.

My first memory of exploring the great woods was in the first fall we lived there. I expect it was December, just after my baby brother was born, and I was out in the woods with my dad and my mother’s father. My grandfather only got to visit us once after we got to Wilmington. He was impressed with our house, telling us the second bathroom was for a maid. Although our house was nothing grand, it must have seemed that way to him. I later learned that he didn’t have indoor plumbing until my mother was in high school and dating my father. My father, who worked after school with his dad in the plumbing and heating business, installed the bathroom in my mother’s home. That afternoon, our house got stuffy with everyone gathering around the newborn and we menfolk took a walk in the great woods. Out there, along a two track road that ran behind the great swamp, while smoking a Camel, Granddaddy told us about deer hunting in this area during the war. There were no longer deer in this part of the county, but it was nice to know that the woods in which I explored had also been explored by my granddad, twenty-some years earlier when he’d left the farm and moved his family to Wilmington to work in the shipyards. It was early that first January we were in Wilmington, just a month after the birth of my baby brother and a week before my tenth birthday, my granddaddy died.

At first, we were not allowed to go back behind the great swamp without by ourselves, but this gave us plenty of area to roam. But we could only roam in the woods when the temperature was below 60 degrees. Our mamma lived in fear of snakes. She hated the slithery reptiles. Mom wasn’t the type of woman to hate and was quick to get on us if we spoke about hating anything, especially someone else. The exception to this rule was snakes and she would have loved for us to have shared her hate for the slithery creatures, but that wasn’t in the cards. Mamma’s fear of snakes caused her to set the 60 degree threshold, a temperature when snakes, which are cold-blooded and have no means of keeping their body core warm, hibernate. Those slithery beasts drew out a primordial fear out of my mom. It was as if she took the Biblical curse personally. She insisted the men in her life, her husband and later her sons, stomp on the heads of serpents before they had a chance to strike at her heel. As far as I know, she never personally harmed a snake, except for one, but that’s another story. It wasn’t the woman’s job to do in snakes, that’s what men and garden hoes were for. It says so in the Good Book: the woman’s male offspring will strike the head of the serpent. (Genesis 3:14-15). Somewhere along the way, as scribes wrote and rewrote scripture, one of them left out the part about the hoe, the preferred implement for striking a snake’s head.

The woods were prime habitat for snakes. The sandy high ground, under the longleaf pines and wire grass, were ideal for the Eastern Diamondbacks and Pigmy Rattlers along with Copperheads. In the years I lived there, I never saw a diamondback, but pigmy rattlers and copperheads were frequently seen in our yard. Once, when using clippers along the edge of the house (this was before weedwackers were ubiquitous), I clipped into a 10 inch pigmy rattler. The snake was caught in the jaws of the clippers and I held it up in fascination as it withered around, its fangs exposed and striking at the metal clippers. Luckily, my hands were out of the reach of the pissed-off serpent. The watery bays of the woods were the perfect habitat for the dread Cottonmouth or water moccasins, an ugly and mean snake that stinks (they actually do give off a foul scent when threatened). These snakes were frequently seen in the drainage ditch at the back of my parent’s property, their location often pointed out to us with Sheba, an English setter that my dad had gotten as a bird dog.

Sheba was gun-shy and never flushed out a covey of quail, but she could distinguish between a poisonous and non-poisonous snake. For some reason, she only bothered the Cottonmouths, cornering the snake and keeping it a bay while dancing around it and barking until my dad came out and took care of it. Once, a snake bit Sheba in the nose and her snout swelled up at least twice his normal size. The vet drained the snout and gave her an antivenin and, in a few days, the dog was back flushing out snakes.

With so many slithery reptiles living behind our house, and my mom’s rule about temperature, my brother and I lived for winter, when we could explore the great woods. Wearing rubber boots, we’d walk around the shallow oval lake, dotted with Spanish moss draped cypress, which stood to one end of the great swamp. Later, I’d learn these were geologically known as a Carolina Bay, but as a boy it was just a swamp. When it dried up, you could walk out on the spongy peat moss. Even when the bay was filled will water, there was no place deeper than a foot or so, which meant Mom didn’t have to worry too much about us drowning. Occasionally, when the temperature dropped below freezing at night and you were out in the early morning, a thin sheet of ice would surround the edge. Wearing our rubber boots, we’d step on the ice and watch and listen as it cracked and splintered under our weight.

One winter, we saw in Boy’s Life an article on making an ice rescue tool, a pick of sorts that you have on you in case you broke through and fell into the water and needed a way to get out. The pick was made of a large nail secured in a piece of wood, with another piece of wood serving as a sheaf. The idea was that if you fell through the ice, you could pull out the pick and drive it in the ice and pull yourself to safety. Of course, we never had ice that thick nor did we have water so deep that we couldn’t walk out of (and it never got cold enough for the salt water in the Sound to freeze), but we made them anyway, just in case another ice age descended. Besides, they were easy to make and we could use them to fight off snakes and wild animals and, more likely, older boys. I don’t know what happened to our ice rescue picks, but having lived for years in country where it’s feasible that one might actually employ such a tool, I’ve yet to feel the need to make another.

As we got older, the Bays had less and less water in them as a series of drainage ditches had slowly been lowering the water table. I was in college before the first road was build through the great woods and it was after I’d left North Carolina that the woods behind my parents house had complete succumbed to development. I’ll never forget the feeling the first time I was home visiting and look out into the backyard and noticed that the woods were gone and another row of houses stood behind my parents. The giant woods had been consumed by the great the Southeastern Sprawl.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Holy Smoke: A Book Review

There's a beautiful full moon tonight and for the first time this winter, there are no clouds. It would be perfect conditions to ski at night, except that we have had temperatures reaching into the 50s F and much of the snow is gone! Last week, I wrote about cookin' pigs. Here's the book that I referred to in that post.

John Shelton Reed & Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 315 pages, plenty of photographs and recipes and more sidebars than you can shake a stick at.

North Carolina has the world’s best barbecue. If you don’t believe it, just ask anyone from the Old North State. And if you can’t believe us, go ask John Shelton Reed and his wife, two Tennesseans, or their South Carolina helper William McKinney (I’m assuming he was a graduate student working for peanuts or maybe barbecue platters). This unholy trinity set out to write the definitive book on North Carolina barbecue.

The real question for most North Carolinians isn’t whether or North Carolina has the best barbecue, but who has the best barbecue within the state. Reed refers to the state as the “Balkans of barbecue.” Those of us who grew up in the eastern part of the state came from the “whole hog” tradition and tended to use a sauce that’s mostly vinegar and peppers. Those from the Piedmont area of the state tend to slather their pork shoulders with a vinegar sauce diluted with tomato ketchup. The best of both traditions slowly cook their meat on coals, preferably hardwood. If not wood, the best barbecuers use charcoal, but never gas. (As a friend of mine use to say about gas grills, you might as well buy yourself a Jenn Air and stick it on your patio.) In the Piedmont, where hickory trees are more plentiful, that’s still the choice wood for barbecuing and there are still many restaurants with a hut or shed out back where they slowly cook their meat over coals.

The Reeds explore the history of barbecue. One theory is that the word came from a native tradition which was observed by the Spanish in the West Indies and called “barbacoa.” A similar word appears in the state in the late 17th Century, as a part of Hertford County that was named “Barbicue Swamp.” A swamp in Harnett Country was called Barbecue Swamp, supposedly because the mist that often covered these swamps reminded an earlier settler of the barbacoa smoke he’d seen in the West Indies. In the mid-18th Century, Highland Scots poured into this area and one of their first churches was named the Barbecue Church, one of the first of many Presbyterian Churches in the Upper Cape Fear region (and hence, my tie to the tradition). Although at first, any meat cooked slowly over coals was called barbecue. Later, in North Carolina, barbecue became synonymous with grilled pork.

The Reeds explore the development of barbecue in North Carolina. In the past, cooking pigs were often done as a celebration at the end of harvest for plantation workers, or as dinners thrown by politicians. Such feasts still exist. (If my readers remember, I wrote about attending such a barbecue for a politician who’d gotten off a corruption charge.) In time, barbecue went from being only done for large social gatherings, to an everyday event served up in barbecue restaurants. The Reeds spend much time discussing the development of the barbecue establishments which dot the North Carolina landscape, each one unique and different. The last third of the book consist of interviews of various barbecue restaurateurs.

The middle portion of the book discusses the variety of food served with barbecue. There’s the barbecue platter with meat, hushpuppies or cornbread, slaw Brunswick stew and other side dishes, along with a cobbler or banana pudding for dessert (I’ve done post describing my method for hushpuppies and Brunswick Stew, cornbread, banana pudding and even cookin’ hogs). Then there’s fast food barbecue, the sandwich consisting of barbecue and slaw. This section of the book includes all kinds of recipes, including a Pepsi Cola cake and of all things Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding. The Reeds are right that most barbecue places serve sweet tea and, if you’re like me, you have to ask to get your tea unsweetened. Reed spends little time discussing alcohol and barbecue. Granted, most barbecue restaurants don’t serve beer or wine (and I agree with him that wine and barbecue is a little farfetched), but I’ve never been to a pig roast where there wasn’t a few bottles of bourbon (often whiskey from his home state of Tennessee). The bottles may not have been out in the open, but you can bet the guys watching the fire overnight took nourishment from the bottle as they swapped stories and keep an eye on the fire.

This is a fun book and although the Reeds are from Tennessee and John Shelton’s politics (which comes out in another of his books that I've reviewed, Whistling Dixie) is a bit more conservative than mine, there’s much to be recommend in here. But one warning, it’s a rather expensive book. Mine came as a Christmas present!

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Skiing and "In Other News"

I had a meeting out of town yesterday morning, so I threw a pair of wool pants and my skis in my truck (my skis stay in the back this time of the year) and took the afternoon off, skiing at a nature preserve a little south of here. This is one of my favorite places to ski and I hadn’t yet been there this winter. It was a cold afternoon, with light wind, but at least the sun peeked out for a few minutes. I don’t think anyone had been on the trails with skis since the weekend and I often found myself breaking trail, which was quite a workout as we haven’t had any fresh snow of any significant amount in the past week. The snow was crusty and quickly cut the wax off the bottom of my skis. I also found myself having to break into a herringbone stride earlier when climbing hills, which was more difficult than normal as the skis would break through the icy snow and required more effort to lift out. But it was a good day to ski and I needed the time alone. I saw a number of deer, some ground squirrels as well as a couple gray squirrels and evidence that some over-ambitious beavers have a dam planned for Cedar Creek. This has been a hard winter on the animals. The deer have been gouging on the low branches of cedars and even some pines (not only in the woods, but also my yard). Ice covered much of Cedar Creek and I especially enjoyed the sections of trail that ran along its banks. I spent nearly three hours out and by the time I got back to the truck, I was sweaty. Enjoy the photos.

Cedar Creek

The work of nature's civil engineers.

In Other News…
Politically Incorrect Reporting by Nevada Jack

It’s been five years since Sage hauled my butt out of Utah and to the relatively flatlands of Michigan. I woke up from hibernation, having dreamed of Utah and wanted to see what was going on in that great theocracy that we once called home. Here in Michigan, the news is always boring or, when it’s about the economy, down right depressing. In Utah, there was always something entertaining going on, especially when the state legislature was in session. I wasn’t disappointed. This year, some right-brained legislator is proposing that places which serve alcohol make copies of folk’s driver’s licenses and share them with the police (who will probably then share them with the local Mormon bishops). In a state where many suffer from a form of dyslexia and reverse certain provisions of the constitution, such as presumption of innocence, this idea is rather disturbing. Of course, maybe this legislator has been brought by the Nevada Chamber of Commerce who’s looking to give Utahans another reason to spend their money across the border. Click here for the real story.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cookin' Pigs

My long time readers will remember stories of me cooking for crowds. But I felt I needed to write this story so I can establish my credentials for my next book review. I'm reviewing Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue! I borrowed the photo from the left. It's an example of the style of cooker I'm writing about.

I no longer remember how it all came together, but late in the summer of 1981, I helped cook my first pigs. That winter, I’d accepted Ron’s invitation to come to work with the Boy Scouts and the weekend after Labor Day, we’d planned a big event at our council camp. All adult leaders in the council were invited for what became our first “Program Planning Day.” I was in charge of the food. Somehow, it all came together. A hog farmer in my district had told me he’d provide a few pigs a year for the scouting program. I approached Ronnie, an assistant scoutmaster in my district, and asked him to help. I’d heard he was an experienced hand. Ronnie agreed, but he only had one cooker. He suggested we go talk to another guy and see if also help us cook. I no longer remember his name, although I still have the recipe for his sauce. He agreed to help us as long as I provided a bottle of Jack Daniels. With that, we were set. Because it was a large crowd, we had two large hogs that dressed out around 150 pounds. I brought a hundred and twenty pounds of charcoal and also got the ingredients for slaw and tea. That first year, we brought hushpuppies and potato salad from a local restaurant on White Lake.

Ron and couple other of my co-workers met me at the council camp late the day before the feast. Shortly afterwards, Ronnie and his friend arrived, both towing a cooker made out of old 270 gallon oil drums. The drums had been cut lengthwise and laid on their sides, and attached to the back of trailers. The top half of the drum opened, allowing access to the racks holding the meat. Pipes for the smoke had been attached to the drums as well as doors in the side in which more coals could be added and the draft controlled. One of the cookers even had a thermometer on the outside. We began by preparing the charcoal in a large metal bucket on the side. It was important to have the coals ready before they were placed under the meat, to keep from the meat from picking up the flavor of the lighter fluid. The pigs were placed on the racks, skin side up. We cooked them this way for a few hours, then turned them over and began to slather the hogs with the vinegar-based sauce. Every few hours, more coals were prepared and placed under the meat and more sauce mopped on the meat. A constant eye was kept on the temperature, with the goal to make sure it didn’t get too much above 220 degrees. Smoke billowed out of the cookers and we watched to make to make sure we had no fires which would burn the meat. While Ronnie and friend watched the cookers, the rest of us chopped cabbage and made cole slaw and gallons of tea and set the tables in the dining hall, all while taking nips from the bottle of Jack. At midnight, everything was ready ‘cept the pigs, so several of us went swimming in the lake. Afterwards, we crashed.

I was up at dawn, before the first rays of the sun struck the tops of the cypress along the shore of the lake, and walked behind the dining hall to check on the pigs. They were nearly done. Ronnie and his friend, who’d taken turns checking on the pigs during the night, were both awake. Coffee was perking and on the grill were several feet of linked sausage. First, I was going to sample a piece of the pig. It was delicious. After everyone was up, someone scrambled some eggs and we had breakfast. Then we began hauling parts of the pig (it was so tender it broke apart) into the kitchen where we began the process of chopping the meat. After chopping, we mixed the meat in large pans and added fresh sauce on top, covered them in foil and slide them into a warming over to wait for the hoards we were expecting at noon. Everyone loved it.

Over the next three years, Ronnie and I would cook a number of pigs for various scout functions. We prepared them for leader dinners, annual banquet and golfing tournament fundraisers. Whenever we had a lot of folks to feed, we’d chop the meat and serve it, but when there were not so many, we’d serve it pig pickin’ style, and folks could help themselves, pulling meat from their favorite parts of the hogs. Most of the pigs we cooked with charcoal, but a couple of times we cheated and used a gas grill that we borrowed from Ronnie’s work. Once, I helped another guy cook a pig using oak. You can taste the difference. I’ve not cooked a whole hog since 1984, when I left Eastern North Carolina, but I have on many occasions prepared barbecue, using shoulders and baby back ribs.

Monday, February 02, 2009

My Apologies to Robert Frost

My Apologies to Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in yellow snow,
And glad I am not to travel both
One traveler with four legs runs to the tree
And looks down as he hunkers low
And lifts his leg to take a pee
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged from my front porch, and I—
I took the one with the white snow,
And that has made all the difference.

We had a bit of thaw this weekend with temperatures climbing up above freezing and the snow is packing down. Yesterday was the warmest day of the year—it was 38 degrees F. I decided that I had to take a picture of the “two roads” off my front porch. When it was bitterly cold, I was having a hard time to get my dog to do more than just go to the edge of the porch and lift his leg. So I ran him a path to a locust tree in the front yard and he’s smart enough to know that’s what that path is for (but he doesn’t always make it to the tree). I’m noticing that Trisket (the dog) isn’t moving as well in the snow as previous years. That’s to be expected, in dog years he’s now older than me. But who else shovels a path for their dog, I think that mutt is spoiled.

It was a great weekend, capped off with an exciting game last night. What a ballet act by Holmes in the end zone to pull in the winning pass. Both teams played well (except for the penalties) and kept the game exciting. Did you have a great weekend?