Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pedigree

Hillbillies are found everywhere, not just in the mountains of the eastern parts of America.  And not all talk like Jethro Bodine from the Beverly Hillbillies.  Some are even educated.  Not all are rednecks—that’s an entirely different story.  Basically hillbillies are often not the most forward thinking lot much of the time; however, their wisdom and wit can be priceless.

For instance, a family was traveling to visit relatives down in the flatland when one of the kids asked, “When will we get there?”  “Well,” the dad replied, “like the dog said after he got his tail run over by a lawnmower, ‘It won’t be long now’.”

I was watching a show about genealogy recently where one of the people discovered several of their ancestors to be of less than perfection.  In fact, there were turncoats, robbers, grifters, and a few other rather interesting persons just a few generations back.  This caused some wailing that sounded like an alley cat convention, not to mention enough tears to float a battleship.

Not everyone has a perfect pedigree.  Usually there is a shady character or two every few generations.  Maybe there is a big difference between reality and family lore.  These genealogy programs often bring up at least one surprise proving no one is immune from the past.

For years I heard stories about my family that didn’t make sense to me so I ignored what I heard and just lived my life, but over time I grew curious about where I came from.  What I have found out so far is such a mixed bag, I may never completely come to terms with all of it.  I am descended from presidents, soldiers, slaves, doctors, thieves, farmers, inventors, somebodys, nobodys, and a lot of other stuff—but the one of the biggest discoveries is that I am descended from hillbillies.  Now it’s my turn to wail and cry.

The farther back I travel on the family tree, the greater the number of ‘anomalies.’  And it seems many of those ‘anomalies’ lived in the Appalachians.  Actually, I found it began long before the Appalachians became known to Europeans.  One branch of my family traces back to the Vikings (from the mountains of Scandinavia) that settled in the highland mountains and some of the islands of western Scotland.  A portion of that branch ultimately migrated to the mountains of Wales.  (I guess they were attracted to the mountains.)  In the 1650’s they moved to America and within two generations were counted among the founding fathers of hillbilly Appalachia, so I guess hillbillies predated America.

Another branch of my family were among the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower.  It took about fifty years for them to start moving around, and they finally settled down, more or less, in what is now North Carolina where they intermarried with the previous batch of family and so were indoctrinated into the hillbilly lifestyle.  (Let’s see—mountains and family marrying family—hmm.  Banjos anyone?)  These hillbillies joined with other hillbillies, and over the years my fate was sealed.

For some reason, my family sought out the mountains and the solitude it provided.  But with that solitude came strange thought processes.  By the time I came along, I simply inherited many generations of strangeness.  I knew in school I was different from everyone else, but it wasn’t until I began to visit in the homes of my friends that I could see what made me different.  Actually, for a long time I thought THEY were the strange ones.

When I entered college my first major was music, but I moved on to psychology where I began to learn what was strange about everyone else.  It wasn’t until I overheard someone comment to another that I should use psychology to study myself that my eyes were opened to reality.  Well, enough of that. 

As a child I would spend some nights with my grandparents on their farms.  My dad’s mother would get up in the dark hours of the morning and start preparing breakfast, but at the first moment of light she would open the front door and deeply breath in the outside air.  She would always have me join her inhaling big drafts of early morning atmosphere, and she would tell me there is nothing else as wonderful as the good country air.  A few years later I realized this fresh country air was basically barnyard air.  There was nothing at all good about it.

I learned a lot of things from my family.  Farming was definitely the first thing, and leatherworking was a close second.  Canning, pickling, dry storage, smoking (food and otherwise), and of course some wine making.  There was a time when my grandfather showed me his method for making moonshine—the same method that got him arrested back in the ‘thirties.  Anyone for making beer in the bathtub?  How about stove-top distilling using a modified pressure cooker?

My great-aunt Emma taught me that smoking a cigar in a pipe allowed the entire cigar to be used up without any waste.  My mother’s cousin Carl grew a small patch of tobacco to make his own style of chaw.  I tried it once.  I will not, will not, make that mistake again.  My mothers’ mothers’ sister’s great-grandchild’s husband’s uncle’s cousin (who was also my mother’s father’s sister’s grandson) was a mechanic who worked on farm tractors until it was discovered the replacement parts and motors he was using had been pilfered from the sheriffs’ cars in a neighboring county.

Genealogy has taught me more than I really wanted to know about my family, but once I started the process I found it difficult to stop researching.  Recently I was contacted by a very distant cousin who found my name while involved in his own family search.  He was a relative of my mother’s father, and had discovered we were descended from gypsies (or Roma) from Romania, filtered through Bohemia, before arriving in America.  They may not have been actual hillbillies, but it’s pretty darn close.

We are all influenced by family traditions handed down through generations, but that doesn’t mean we are the people who handed them down.  And that doesn’t mean we have to accept the traditions offered to us.  But then again, some are downright interesting, such as the game of Bum Checkers.  Don’t ask.  I’ve said too much already.

I was researching how we moved out of the mountains and ultimately to Texas, and it soon became apparent it was all about elbowroom.  By the 1790’s there were just too many people living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so one of my ancestors along with his Cherokee wife chose to move to New Orleans.  Go figure.  From there they moved into East Texas in the 1840’s.  (I suspect New Orleans was even more crowded than the mountains.)

Another batch of these hillbillies joined with Stephen Austin’s first wave of settlers to Texas in the early 1820’s.   At least one of my ancestor’s fought at the Alamo, another at Goliad, and another fought at San Jacinto (things didn’t turn out very well for the first two). 

Several of my ancestors arrived from eastern Tennessee starting in 1828, and the last group seems to have arrived shortly after Texas was readmitted to the Union following the Great War for Southern Independence.

Some surprises in the research were the family members that came from Mexico possibly in the mid-1500’s, and married into some the Native American tribes of East Texas.  Karankawa, Tonkawa, and Caddo were all a part of the mix.  In the late 1880’s to early 1900’s (some details are hard to pin down here), a Mexican/Cherokee joined the family.

Another surprise from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s was that one of my Cherokee ancestors owned slaves—black, white, and Cherokee—and through at least two generations my lineage includes African ancestry. 

It also appears the wife of one of my great-great grandfathers was Japanese of Anyu decent.

Yeah, I’m descended from hillbillies.  But I’m also descended from many other groups of fascinating people whose lives I will probably never understand.  It took courage to make many of their choices, but I’m glad they did.  And I’m proud of my very mixed up heritage.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

In the Meat of the Night

Beware of the long dark nights when the only sounds are the chirping of the crickets, an occasional frog croak, and the crackling of the wood fire in the smoker.  Sometimes these nights can cause a normally rational man to cook something besides a brisket.

I was expecting some company to arrive over the weekend and I decided to cook up a few things ahead of time so we could spend more time together talking and eating, and less time talking and just waiting to eat (i.e., cooking).  Nothing was too good for these friends from Wyoming, and I was going all out for them.  To me ‘all out’ means more brisket than can possibly be eaten, and, of course, all the sides and deserts that go with it.

This event was coming at a critical time in both of our lives.  Stan and Sherry were moving to his family home in Ireland, and I was in the process of moving to California.  We knew we would probably never see each other again, and the past forty years have proven this to be true.

Sherry I had known since the fifth grade.  We weren’t close friends, but we were friends.  It was a relatively small school in a rather small town near Fort Worth, so it was impossible not to know each other.  It wasn’t until after she met my friend Stan that I discovered what a treasure she was.

Stan was the new kid in the tenth grade.  He was from Ireland, he had red hair, green eyes, and he spoke with a funny accent, but I didn’t care.  Stan was fun to be around.  It wasn’t long before he and Sherry were a couple, and they never looked back.

They married right out of high school, and moved to Boulder, Colorado to attend the university there.  I didn’t hear from them for about four years until I was holding a meeting at a company store in Denver.  We took a lunch break, and as I was walking through the store to go to a nearby restaurant, I saw Stan making a purchase in one of the departments.

I did a double take.  At first I wasn’t sure this was my friend, but I heard him speak, and there was no doubt.  Moments later, Sherry came up behind him and took his hand.  I had to say something.

They had just moved to Denver after graduating from college, and both were starting new jobs in a few days.  For the next two years, each time I was in Denver, I stayed with Stan and Sherry, but then they moved to a remote spot in Wyoming.  I didn’t see them much after the move, although we stayed in touch.  Now our lives were changing permanently, and nothing less than brisket would be proper for the occasion.

I had just left my job of many years, and I had a lot of time on my hands, so I began gathering everything needed to get ahead on the cooking.  It was Tuesday, and Stan and Sherry would be arriving mid-day Saturday for a four-day visit.  I had much to do, but there was plenty of time. 

First on the list was to secure four briskets for the smoker.  I headed over to Bubba’s Butcher Shop where I was told they were completely out of brisket.  Some big outfit over in Arlington was throwing a barbeque and had bought every brisket in two counties.  Great.  Now what?

The owner of the shop said since I was such a good customer, he would reach into his private locker and let me have his personal briskets.  If I could come back tomorrow morning, he would have them ready to travel.  Wow.  That was very kind.  The next morning I was there when they opened the doors at 6am, and I grabbed the box with the big package in it.  I gave it a few pokes with my hand to determine if it was frozen (as expected, it was not), and I headed home.

I spent the day making ahead everything I possibly could with the exception of the brisket.  That evening I opened the package to begin preparing the first two briskets, and I discovered the package contained six smaller packages.  Five of the packages were brisket size, but the sixth one was quite a bit larger.  Well, it must have been a huge cow.  I’ll just save it for later.  By the time I went to bed somewhere around 3am, I had four briskets dry rubbed and wrapped up to season for the smoker.

I spent Thursday making pies, a couple of cakes, prepping appetizers and sticking them into the freezer, and that evening I started prepping some bread dough for Friday baking.  Does this sound like a lot of food?  Yeah, it was.  But I knew Stan and Sherry well enough to expect a lot of visitors over the next few days.  They were saying ‘goodbye’ to a lot of friends.

About noon on Friday I took some time to start the smoker.  I shuffled back and forth between the kitchen and the smoker for a while until the temperature was just right, and then I put on the first two briskets.  These should get us through Saturday and Sunday, with the second two briskets being smoked Sunday night for Monday and Tuesday.  Perfect.

By the time Stan and Sherry arrived, everything was ready, including about a dozen high school friends I didn’t expect before Sunday.  We had a great time just sitting out in the back yard eating, drinking, talking, eating.  By the evening, we were already about halfway through the second brisket, so I decided to toss the other two prepared briskets onto the smoker.

Sunday I saw more people than I could remember ever seeing at our old high school.  At least they brought along a few dishes to supplement the disappearing appetizers, sides, desserts, and brisket I had prepared.  But still, the food was going fast.  Someone called out concerning the lack of Big Reds, so I decided to take a trip to the store.  Most likely no one would realize I was gone until I returned with the sodas, but my real intent was to find more meat for the smoker and/or grill.

Buddies Grocery was just a few miles away, so I figured I would be gone about half an hour at the most.  What I didn’t figure on was the lack of meat in the store.  It seems the big barbeque over in Arlington caused a meat panic and every piece of beef had already been purchased.  However, they had some sausages.  I bought about 20 pounds.

Worth Mart was in the same condition, but they had a big prime rib left.  I took it.  Harrison’s Market had a shipper’s box of pork chops.  I didn’t know how to cook a pork chop, but it was meat.  It went into the car.  I made one more stop at F&M Market and all they had left was a few sausages and several baloney (Texan for bologna) rings.  Good enough.  I got home after nearly two hours without any sodas.  At least someone else realized the problem and picked some up.

I fired up the smoker and tossed on all of the baloney and the pork chops.  I fired up the grill and tossed on the sausages.  I think it was Janet that took over the grill for me, and I went into the house to open the last two packages of brisket.  I guessed I couldn’t have them ready to cook tonight, but they could be prepped for tomorrow.  I opened the small package to discover more sausages instead of a brisket.  Okay, at least it was meat.  I opened the big package and discovered two perfect prime ribs.  Oh, yeah.  Along with the one I already had, we were going to eat high on the hog, uh, cow.

We sausaged, baloneyed, and pork chopped our way through the night with a lot of leftovers.  These became breakfast and lunch on Monday.  By Monday afternoon I had the smoker going again, and the prime rib was in place.  Stan and Sherry had decided to take the evening and visit someone over in Dallas, so the guests left early, and I had a long quiet evening ahead.  Just as the sun was setting, a truck pulled into my long dirt driveway.  It was Bubba the Butcher.

“I got some more brisket here for you.  I know you was goin’ to come up short, so when these showed up, I thought of you.  And here is a box of chickens.  And here is a turkey.  Need any help?”

We got everything ready on into the smoker (that was one crowded smoker), and we sat back and ate the few remaining sausages and pork chops.  About 10pm Bubba left, and I was on my own.  I wandered into the kitchen searching for a slice of pie, and there on the kitchen table was a box with a note.  “Just a little extra,” was all it said.

I opened the box and found a dressed out pig.  Not a big one, maybe about 30 pounds.  What do I do with it?  I had just cooked pork chops for the first time in my life, so what now?  I decided to just wrap the pig up and put it in the refrigerator.  At least the refrigerator was nearly empty.

I sat in front of the smoker until about 1am when the chickens were done.  I pulled them off, wrapped them up, and placed them in a hot box with the three prime ribs that had come off the smoker earlier.  I sat down to watch the smoke against the moonlight and listen to the crickets and frogs. 

My mind started wandering down to the endless pathways of semi-consciousness where reality becomes very distorted.  There was something about a motorcycle with tank treads, a fish in a fashion show, and a bus with the ability to fly.  I came awake with a jerk when I heard someone talking about the uncertainty of the existence of chocolate.  I looked around, but no one was there, and I was now sitting on my back porch instead of the chair by the smoker.

My watch was showing 4:15am, so I guessed I had been out for a couple of hours.  I checked the temperature on the smoker and tossed a couple of logs into the firebox.  Then I raised the lid to check on the turkey and briskets, but there was that pig in there with them.  When did I do that?  Well, the turkey was done, and I was getting hungry.  The way things had been for the last few days, I didn’t think anyone would miss a few slices.

About 7am the crowd started gathering again.  Stan and Sherry weren’t due back until about noon, but since this was to be their last day in town before flying out early Wednesday morning, no one wanted to miss seeing them one last time.  It was with great relief that I witnessed several of the guests take over the kitchen and prepare a banquet breakfast for everyone.  And I was really glad to see the mounds of dishes being addressed. 

Stan and Sherry arrived just in time to have lunch.  Turkey, chickens, and briskets were gone by mid-afternoon.  All I had left were the prime ribs and the pig, and they were gone by the time the last guest left late that evening.

Wednesday morning I took Stan and Sherry over to Dallas’ Love Field to catch their pre-dawn flight to New York where they would change planes for Dublin.  When I returned home, I began the final cleanup before packing my things to move to California.  The farm, which had been in my family for several generations, had already been sold, and a second-hand company had purchased almost everything else.  I kept my car and my trailer with all that would fit in it.  As I was driving out of the long driveway for the last time, I realized I had told no one other than Stan and Sherry that I was moving to California.  They’ve probably figured it out by now.