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.

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