Monday, March 9, 2020

I Chose the "Ch****oast"



When I was thirteen or so my parents went out of town for the weekend. My then seventeen-year-old, senior in high school brother was tasked with looking after me, so, yeah, I went unsupervised. 

It was fall and he had a football game Friday night which I had attended and got a ride home afterward with friends. He was supposed to get me home. I didn’t see him again until late Saturday morning when he left and told me he’d see me whenever.

I, correctly, took that to mean the next day.

When Mom left, she said we could have anything in the freezer, meaning TV dinners, which were very popular in those days. She, however, did not say specifically which freezer she meant. You see, there was also a big chest freezer in the basement full of frozen bread and vegetables, ice cream, curiously, milk and… meat.

I liked meat, a lot, then and still do. For some people it’s sweets, some like salty, some like fruits and vegetables, others can’t do without starch. I think folks are predisposed, like, biologically, to run on different fuels. I run on meat.  Also, I am not a scientist.

So, here was the plan. I’d get some meat from the freezer and I’d grill it for my lunch. As I opened the lid that cold air rushed me and I swore I heard a little choral “hallelujah” as I looked down on all those white butcher packs full of meat, each marked - many smeared - with a grease pencil as to their content. Now, I was not so stupid as to take a “T-bone” or a “Strip,” Dad would not have liked that. There were plenty marked “Hambuger”(sic) but that’s not what I wanted. As I dug, I found “Round Steak,” a possibility, a giant “Roast” and, towards the very bottom, a “Ch*** *oast.” It was not too thick, a good size and has clearly been down there on the bottom for quite a while and would probably not be missed.

So, I chose the “Choast.”

Now, I have held in my hands a piece of marble that was less hard than this chunk of meat. In fact, I had to run it under hot water to get the paper off it was so thoroughly frozen to the surface of the meat. This, for reasons that I can’t quite grasp today, did not deter me, nor did the white freezer-burn around the edges. I chucked it onto a cookie sheet and went to start the Weber.

I’d watched my Dad start the grill many times, we had hamburgers most Saturday nights, and I knew how to get it started. 
He used a nifty chimney thing that you stuffed with newspaper at the bottom and filled the larger top part with the Kingsford and lit. In ten or so minutes the coals were going and you could dump them out and put the grill grate on. I accomplished this with little difficulties. The difficulties were yet to come…

Salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder, just as Dad did with the burgers. The grill was hot, and I slid that meat from the sheet pan and on to that very hot grill with a mighty sizzle and a soft sorta “clunck” and looked forward to my steak in fifteen or twenty minutes, figuring it was just a big sirloin.

I gave it a few minutes and went to flip it with the big fork that dangled from the Weber. Needless to say, that meat was simply impenetrable. I gave up on the fork and grabbed the tongs that were next to them. The tongs were woefully under-designed for a two-and-a-half-pound hunk-o-beef and I quickly abandoned them.

All that was left on the utensil hanger was the burger spatula that had a surface area about a thirty-secondth of the meat. I managed to get it under but kept getting it off balance and had to steady it with the tongs, but I did manage to get it flipped.

Nothing. It had grayed a bit and there were a few marks from the grate, but it didn’t look like any hamburger or steak I’d ever had. I gave the other side maybe ten minutes, performed the flip maneuver with a little more alacrity and again… nothing. Yeah, it was a little darker than the first side, a little less gray edging toward brown but, well, not right.

Young men are not quick to either see nor admit to the folly of their ways - that comes with time and experience - but, I think I began to see that I needed a better plan. Thankfully, it occurred to me that I needed to thaw the beef. Perhaps this was not the best time for this realization, especially since I knew meat needed to be thawed. My mom often left a pound of hamburger out to thaw in the morning for dinner later. I am still unclear why this occurred to me so late in the game that day, but, there it is.

However, when it did occur to me, it all occurred to me. 
Something changed. It was clear that a biological timer had gone off or, deeper perhaps, a genetic switch was tripped, and I saw unmistakably the battle I was into, my first, my trial by fire. The combination of the heat and smoke of the Kingsford, the aroma of the sear, and the Flintstone-like look of that slab stirred up in me a primitive and urgent lust for that piece of meat and conjured in my mind great heroism. I felt, perhaps, as an apprentice may feel as he enters a noble trade and knows that he will someday know the secrets that will make him wise.

I’ll do us all the honor of speeding up the narrative.

You know that technique where you push all the coals to one side and the other side no longer sears, we call it “indirect heat” these days? Yeah, I didn’t think of that. I did remove the meat and the grill, and I pushed all the coals to the sides, in a big circle. I added some more Kingsford on top of the graying ones and put the grate and the meat back on.

Yes, I’d encircled the Choast and begun my siege. 
I won’t dwell on the battle tactics I employed, but they did include an interesting technique to refuel my fire in which I slowly spun the grate and dropped individual briquettes through a small gap by the handles of the grate; an inspired Webelo moment that involved aluminum foil and an onion and a limp celery stalk and Pepsi; and a moment of sheer epiphany when I came to understand the air vent adjusters at the top and bottom.

So, a wrapped and wrestled, roasted and broasted, fiddled and fucked with that meat for a full four or more hours. So long, in fact, that I had to have lunch waiting on my lunch - Lebanon bologna and mustard, thanks for asking. Finally, I decided to remove it from the foil to see what I had.

It was gray…

However, as you might recall, I had been awakened to the Way of the Grill and I knew I needed to get some color on it. So, off the grill, remove the grate and pile all those coals, now just small glowing bits, but they made a nice pile in the center.

As I stacked them with the wearing-out tongs I knocked most of the ash off them and, well, I could have smelted on them. Grate back on and quickly it is hot, hot, hot.

I slid the meat down with a satisfying sizzle. The Pepsi had reduced along with the juices and was a bit syrupy and clung to the outside of the chunk. It quickly smelled of caramel and barbeque and earth and Ohio. 

I managed to flip it - it was starting to come apart a little - and when I did the angels sang. It was dark gold and brown and deep umber and there were perfect grill marks. It was Pinterest perfect decades before there was such a thing. I can see it right now…

I quickly seared up the other side and plated it on an chipped oval platter, a platter my mother still has to this day. It was then that I realized I didn’t have anything to go with it. 

I carried the finished product into the kitchen and decided to fry up some potatoes in bacon grease, a family favorite Nick makes these days. Now that took a while and, honestly, unbeknownst to me, gave that meat a chance to rest and cool a little.

Somewhere around six, I’d guess I sat down at the picnic table on the screened porch. Close enough to the Weber to feel the last of the heat from the coals which cut the evening chill nicely. Our porch was high on a hill and all around me the woods and fields in the distance glowed in that fall palette this part of the country utilizes so well. It was still and had been all day and the aroma from the hours-long grilling session hung sweetly in the high ceiling above me. Crickets and frogs were tuning up and birds tittered in the trees.

I looked down at the platter in front of me, this platter…



… and the rustic aroma of those golden, bacon-fried potatoes mingled with the faint tang of the burnt edges and the sweetness of that pop-caramelized chuck roast will forever hang in the smokehouse my memory.

It was not quite fork-tender, I had a steak knife and sliced an edge off and popped that in my mouth and, well, you know what... I’m gonna let you imagine how good it was. Everything I could say about it is because I know food these days, not so much then.

I know, now, what techniques I used and why things happened the way they did. I know the Maillard effect and about how sugar and salt work and all that.

But, back then, all I knew was that it was perfect, and I had never even intended it. I thought I was having steak but accidentally invented braised, grilled, glazed ch****oast.

And that, dear boys, is my bit of advice today: a lot of times life works out much differently than you expected. And - comically, I think - it is often through blunders and wrong turns and desperate chances and tomfoolery and hairbrainage and dumbfuckery that we find ourselves in wonderful, odd and unforgettable moments.

If there are axioms in life I think this might be one:

“You never know what’s coming or where you're going.”

I hope this finds you someday, boys.

And peace to those reading along now, or tomorrow or yesterday. It’s weird that when you write it’s like being in all tenses at the same time.

Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Coffee Cups and Mason Jars


Hey, boys, I think it's just us. 

So, I figure it this way: Young men, such as yourselves, don't want their parents' advice, especially from aged ones such as I; also, young men crave advice.  Clearly, the answer here is to give you some advice.

Right?

I'll start simply.  As you have no doubt noticed, everyone is walking around with water bottles and travel mugs these days.  It's cool, I get it, but, it hasn't always been like this.  In the sixties and seventies, when I was young, nobody carried a cup of coffee around or had a water bottle close by.  Yes, of course, people used canteens and such and there were buckets (literally buckets, with a ladle) of water at practices.  I remember seeing a farmer, Mr. Barnes, sitting under the shade of that one tree that always seemed to be in the middle of the field, and drinking water out of a Mason jar.  Folks used thermoses back in those days as well, usually full of strong, black coffee from the percolator and usually for a long car trip or a morning hunt or Spring planting.

I'll get back to those in a minute, but first a quick story.

***

We were walking, so it must have been when I was a freshman and Don was a sophomore.  We'd finished football practice - we were both on the Junior Varsity team - and, because we didn't have a ride, had walked to his house only a half-mile or so away.  He stopped to check on something in the garage, so I planned to knock and go on in as I usually did. 

The entrance that everyone used was off the back up a few steps and through a screen door into the kitchen.  I remember stopping on the little landing and looking in.  Mrs. M. was sitting at the Formica and chrome kitchen table, white green trimmed saucer in her hand sipping out of the matching cup.  She took a few sips and nestled the cup back into its little ring in the saucer but kept it in her hand, not setting it down.

Her gaze was towards the window above the big farm sink to my right.  She seemed still, calm, wistful somehow.  It may seem odd that I took the time to see her so, but here's the thing - I don't think I'd ever seen the woman sitting.  She was a busy housewife; five kids, mostly sporty boys, some grandparents lived there as well, as I recall.  She hung her laundry and cooked and made cookies and sandwiches and all that stuff.  I am only saying this to emphasize the fact that I don't think I'd even ever seen her still.

Looking back, I think that may be why I waited on that stoop, seeing her that way.  I didn't want to interrupt her reverie.  I heard Don coming my way, so I finally pushed open the screen door and walked on in.  I didn't startle her as I'd been afraid I might, she just looked my way and smiled in surprise that I wasn't her son.  She put down her cup and saucer after one last draining sip, she looked one last time out that window into the fading Autumn afternoon.

"Is everything alright, Mrs. M.?"

"Oh sure, Bill, I was just collecting my thoughts," she answered offhandedly.

Don burst into the kitchen laughing with an old hound behind him - he was a big, loud dude, Don, not the hound - and the dog's paws clicked and clacked on the linoleum floor and the stillness was gone.

She quickly got up and put her cup and saucer into the deep sink and asked if we'd like some sandwiches and set to work on them before we answered her.

"Collecting my thoughts."

 ***


Thermoses - you know, vacuum bottles, Thermos is a brand name - were lined with glass in those days so we treated them with respect.  There was a lid on the inner bottle which screwed on tight but there was also another lid which sort of half screwed half clicked onto the outer steel shell.  It was a cup.  One did not just glug out of them, you stopped what you were doing and carefully poured a few ounces into the lid and had that.  Sometimes, if you were in a car, the passenger did that for you, but, more often than not, you'd stop somewhere and have a cup or two, and collect your thoughts.

I can't remember where we were going but we were in a big-ass station wagon, me ensconced in the narrow storage well between the back seat and the reverse-facing back-back seat - I liked it there.  The windows were closed except for my Dad's "cozy wing" (look it up), which he used to ash the cigarettes he enjoyed while driving.  Maybe we were going to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving to see family friends, it occurs to me.  Dad lit a filtered Camel and asked my Mom for the last of the coffee.

I'd say we were well into the trip, my oldest brother, in front of me, was reading a cheap paperback science fiction novel and my other older brother was flopping about in the back-back seat trying to sleep.  I'd been watching the fields and barns and cows and power lines.  My mom grabbed the worn gray Thermos bottle off the long bench between them, clicked off the cup and unscrewed the lid.  She poured him a couple of sips, nearly upending the nearly empty bottle, and I remember the steam coming off the little stained stainless-steel cup.  The aroma of that dark black percolated Folgers mingled with the rich earthy smell of the Camel and I recall feeling good, safe, content.  My Mom asked Dad, as he passed back the cup if he was alright.

"I was just thinking, I guess," he said with a smile I could not see but somehow heard.

It was the same with Mr. Barnes in that field.  Down between his feet in a cardboard box, nestled into a wooden crate that was somehow affixed to the tractor, was his daily stash of jars.  They were in, of course, the box the jars had originally come in with little dividers, twelve I'd guess, and they were covered with a wet towel to keep them at least cool.  Of course, a man can't wrastle a tractor and a plow with one hand, so he had to stop and have his drink.

I was watching him from my perch in a tree we played in as boys, he was probably a football field away (a common measurement in the Midwest) and I couldn't really see his face but, it occurs to me now, I'll bet it held the same expression Mrs. M.'s had.  I could tell he was gazing into the distance; the field was plowed to where he was under that big tree, and he was looking towards the beige stubble of the unplowed half.  I'd guess, if one could have asked him what he was doing, he'd've answered "Collectin' my thoughts."


So, my advice isn't to not have a take-out coffee or drink from a water bottle, but, occasionally at least, do something that slows you down.  In a way, I think we all want to do it.  It's there in that moment you forgot that you were watching a baseball game on TV and are just staring at the pretty moving picture.  It's there when you wait in your car, engine running, to listen to the end of an old favorite song or symphony.  It's there watching a child sleep or a sun rise.  I know you recognize it in others, that wistful look on another's face.  A "faraway smile" you could say.  You've most likely had to get someone back from that place.  I've had to do it with you boys.  I see Marci do it - she'd usually smiling as she does, which is sweet.

I suppose, in truth, what I am talking about here is "mindfulness."  Yeah… no.  That makes it seem like a goal or a state of existence or a trance or something you need direction with.  As I said, it is something we all do, this "thought collecting."  What I am suggesting is simply to recognize your soul in it, your self.

If I were a man of faith (which I am) I might make one final observation (which I will).  As I look back on these moments - each serene, quiet, rich, even poignant - I sense something else.  I wonder if perhaps I saw it then, considering that I can so readily recall the details.  I wonder if I haven't always sensed it…

A prayer perhaps?

Peace, boys.

And to you kind reader, thanks for coming around.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Unlicensed



(Hi… yes, yes it is awkward to begin an essay with a parenthetical aside but I’m going to, hell, I might italicize it as well, being unlicensed and unregulated and all. I just wanted to say that there are several links to previous posts in this one.  Feel free to check them out if you care to.  But, hey, maybe you could read all the way through this one before you do, because, I’m pretty sure that if you jump elsewhere on your phone, I probably won’t see you again.  Thanks.)


They came to take away my "dad blogger" license away back in September.  A couple of guys sporting beards and superhero tees knocked on my door.  The one with the bigger beard suggested that I knew why they'd come. I did.

I hadn't done the obligatory back-to-school post yet.  I scrambled mightily to get one up on time the year before, but this year… yeah, nothin'. Also, I haven't posted in a long while, which is usually pretty forgivable but, months...?  I've also made a concerted effort to talk less directly about the boys, again, understandable, but, sort of off brand.  And, I neglected to do a Father's Day piece, which is, well, unheard-of.

I was informed that I can only wear my cargo shorts to do yardwork, which seems reasonable and I'd already been doing that.  They wanted my "World's Greatest Dad" mug as well but decided I could keep it when I told them it was in the back of the fridge full of bacon grease (which in and of itself makes me the world's greatest dad).  They also asked for the decoder ring I used to translate the stuff the boys wrote and said early on which didn't make sense.  I told them I'd like to keep it because I've actually got drawings and stories and such that I haven't yet figured out.  They seemed cool about it.

There were a few other caveats as well.  In honor of my nearly ten years of service to the community of dad bloggers, I am allowed to post anything I want on Father's Day and the first day of school – no questions asked.  But, I mustn't post new sentimental slop as I did for so many years at any other time, at least dad slop, I guess.  I can, and this surprised me, repost old pieces when I'd like.  I gather this is a result of the "throw-back Thursday" clause.

The one thing that really had the whole system messed up was that the name of my blog here is, and shall always remain, "ihopeiwinatoaster."  I guess not having a reference to "daddy" or "father" or "pop" or anything Star Wars lets me keep using my same domain.  Usually, you are asked to archive your "Dad" period and, if you wish to continue blogging - which no one in their right mind should - you need to start afresh.  Ha, I knew that stupid handle was a good idea.

There was a lot of mumbo-jumbo legalese.  I had to initial off on a few subjects I'd need to stay away from - Lego and tee-ball and doing laundry and broken arms and, let's see, uhm, homework and math and misspellings, whimsical writings and inexplicable drawings and, oddly Harry Potter – because, apparently, it's the dad's with younger kids turn to write about the good stuff.  I can see all that, really, and there's a really good cadre of fresh dads taking up the cause… God love 'em.  I had to write a piece to say I understood the terms of the dissolution and to say goodbye, see above.  However, because of the domain name loophole, I can just keep posting here.

Listen, I actually think it's good that they stopped by and took the license, I may go rogue every now and then and talk about the boys, but I think in principle the gag order is valid.  There is a sweetness and a sentimentality in writing about babies, toddlers - just children in general - that should be explored.  I certainly have read a great number of posts from men about their kids over the years which have moved me to tears.  And, you know what, I hope that continues.  However, I'm not really the guy to do it anymore.

The wickets get a bit stickier as children turn to adults or, in my case, boys grow into men.  The stakes are a little higher, tales of teddy bears and movie scares and misspellings and odd math no longer seem appropriate, even, as I worked very hard to do, if they are told tenderly and lovingly.  It's no longer my business (was it ever?) to tell you about them.  There are crushes and heartbreak and failures and successes and books and fights and glories coming to learn from, and they will.  But, those are now their stories to hold or to share.

So, I was supposed to have this submitted to and approved by the Blog dudes by the end of last year, but, well... I didn't.  That's because I didn't want them to see this last part.

You see, I'm not done yet.  I've got more to say, a few more stories to tell, some advice to give.  I've worked very hard to honor and respect N and Z over the years I've been doing this and I think I can still do that.  Not by sharing their awkward and embarrassing teenage angst and pubescent bodily functions (which I see bloggers using more than I'd like to), but by offering a little help to them as the years go forward.

I can offer them a little more of me by sharing my past dreams and even my current hopes, perhaps…

There is an undeniable arrogance in assuming your kids will want to know more about you as they go on in their own lives.  It's embarrassing but, here's the thing, two things really - I'd give a lot to see something like this from my own father and I've heard that from a lot of guys over the years.  Also, over and over again folks say to me that the boys will treasure the posts I've done here over the years.  I've been proud to curate their childhood, proud to have thought deeply about them, considered them, and I've been so very proud that they are my sons.

There are a lot of folks I should thank from those years I was sorta in the scene… but I won’t.  I would hope they knew, know, whatever.  Some offered me much needed technical support, others lifted me when I was falling, some were frank in criticism, some just liked the words I lined up into weird rows.  Trying to name them all would be irritatingly long and probably ill-advised.

However, there is one individual I would like to call out: You, kind reader.  Yeah, you.

When I write, I don’t imagine a big audience or entertain the notion that there’s some sort of “ihopeiwinatoaster Nation” out there.  No, I’m pretty much talking just to you on the porch watchin’ the trees grow and the wind blow or in the kitchen waitin’ for the coffee to finish and the biscuits to bake.  I’ve tried to keep it casual and soft here - although, I have gotten my britches in a bunch a few times - and I intend to keep it that way.

Thanks for stopping by, I know you are busy, I hope this maybe slowed you down a bit.  Feel free to poke around in the basement archives if you’d like, but that’s hard on the Blogger phone app… oh well.  It’s a sad truth that blogging was meant to be done on a computer monitor, not a tiny screen in your palm.

God’s peace to you kind reader. 

Here's a picture of me in a blue workshirt.  Not a picture of the boys. (Sorry, it was required... weird, I know.)




Cheers...