Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rose Cousins Last Supper

Written as part of an assignment for a course in Food and History that I am taking at USF this fall.

The 11 PM update is just in  from the National Asteroid Center and it looks pretty ominous. Forsaking any last minute fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field, Asteroid  2026-A, numbered to denote its year and position, will hit the mid-Atlantic coast of the US just before midnight tomorrow. Asteroid forecaster Jim Cantore, Jr., bald and reporting from close to the center of  impending disaster just like his dad always was,  keeps reminding us that as the speed of an asteroid increases so does its mass as it nears the earth, projecting 2026-A to rise from a Cat 2 to a 5 as it enters our atmosphere. In short,  we are doomed.

Since hearing of the approaching devastation, the Rose cousins have been doing what we do best, sharing lots of panicked WorldNet messages and gathering for a big meal with everyone making a contribution, The Rose Cousins Last Supper. We  have cleared out our  larders, mine filled with tomatoes, bread-and-butter pickes and pickled beets canned just last summer by an aunt who sadly died two months later taking her recipes with her.  We pulled up the end of summer greens  from our gardens and put them  in a big tub of salt water to soak off the grit. My older male cousins dragged over the big,  heavy, barbecue cooker, actually a large oil drum adapted for the purpose, blackened from use and covered in creosote smoked from wood sometimes a bit too green for its purpose, with a metal grate crusted with grease and bits of burned fat fitted inside, all attached atop a trailer for hauling from backyard to lakeside hooked  up to one of those oversized pickups rigged for “huntin’ and towin.”  Since early this morning, they’ve been stoking a fire of  well-seasoned hickory and oak with a little apple wood added for sweetness. The smoke swirls memories through the air until a bed of coals is just about ready for the meat - memories of past birthdays, anniversaries, 4th of July celebrations, baptisms and even a wedding or two where barbecue was often considered more important than the guest of honor, A few pounds of dried black eyed peas, sorted one by one to remove any gravel, are covered with water in a big  bean pot to soak all night for cooking in the morning.

The asteroid, as measured by the newly orbiting  Hubble replacement, is about 100 miles across and is picking up speed. On the current course, 2026-A will crash into the Atlantic just off  the east coast of the US, stir up a tsunami that could circle the earth for as long as 10 years and destroy all life on the planet.. So much for planned leftovers.
My family, the Roses, hails from Johnston County in the sandhills of southeastern NC where barbecue means pork. Period. No exceptions. Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue was first cooked, back long before our ancestors arrived, by new world settlers who thought tomatoes were poisonous. So, despite our Scottish heritage, Rose barbecue is basted with  “English Catsup, ”a mixture of vinegar and peppers, hold the tomatoes. Usually the whole headless, eviscerated hog minus its trotters is cooked and the meat picked off the bones, often right on the rack of the cooker - definitely not a sight for vegetarians, those who proscribe ingestion of pork for religious or health reasons or the weak of stomach.

 The secret to good barbecue is heat, smoke and time, time which we don‘t have - no time to find a hog and have it properly butchered or even to get the local meat merchant to specially order a whole picnic shoulder, the preferred alternative.  So, several of my favorite cousins and I, after a couple of margaritas to drown our sorrows, raided three nearby superWalmarts (the only large food chain still in business) for all the pork shoulders, Boston butts and picnic hams we could carry. The guys are lugging the various pieces of pig out to the cooker now where it’ll rest in dense smoke all night  until we are ready to feast on the deep, smoky, tangy/sweet results.  Once it’s chopped and mixed together with a little extra sauce no one will know it’s not a whole hog anyway.

The young children, exhausted from chasing lightening bugs and playing post-midnight backyard games by flashlight, fell into a fitful sleep pierced with terrible dreams and frequent tear-filled awakenings  as they clung to each other for solace under antique quilts handmade by great aunts from the remnants of all our past lives . The older males passed cold beer and George Dickel  to younger cousins, some not yet of legal drinking age who quickly mixed the Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey with Sundrop, the highly caffeinated, bright yellow, almost sickeningly sweet carbonated elixir of choice, as they  kept the heat of the smoking fire constant. All the mothers, aunts and older female cousins gathered around the big oak kitchen table telling stories we had heard time and again of our history as a textile family, what is means to be a Scot and a Rose and of how some of the uncles, despite better upbringing, actually wore t-shirts or ties in public emblazoned with the names of politicians like George Wallace, Rick Perry or even the Bush brothers, whose grandsons now hold positions of power and who have no idea what constitutes good barbecue - all while smoking too many NC cigarettes, a family habit passed from generation to generation like the always filled pot of  coffee poured into large glass mugs, each cup sweetened with exactly 1 ½ teaspoons of sugar and just enough cream to “bounce off the bottom” until just the correct caramel color is obtained.

Some of the more uber-religious Southern evangelical cousins among us have gathered in the living room to pray, hands held high, that this may be the Rapture for which they have all prepared and to wonder what will become of those of us who, rather than being lifted to the heaven, will be subject to the ravages created by the meteor’s crash. Sadly, the only thing we all know for sure is that our family’s traditions, beliefs, customs and rituals will not survive to be passed on and further molded by another generation.

Dawn came much too early and brighter than expected, not a cloud in the sky to foretell the impending disaster. Shortly after we awoke, I carefully placed whole sweet potatoes in the coals beneath the roasting pork while someone else chopped cabbage and mixed it with some of the barbecue sauce to marinate all day for barbecue slaw.  My sister grated more cabbage very finely and stirred in mayonnaise, a little sugar and some vinegar poured off a jar of pickle relish to make sweet slaw for those that might prefer it.

Some of the younger cousins spent the morning sectioning oranges, tossing out the bitter peel, then squeezing all the juice from the remaining fan-shaped membranes over the supremes of fruit they  mixed with sweetened coconut tinged pink by the red dye from added maraschino cherries. This desert cum salad, our uncles’ favorite ambrosia, was made from oranges transported from California in large trucks and is only slightly reminiscent of the juicy Florida valencias, navels and oh-so-sweet tangerines shipped up each winter in large green mesh bags by our grandparents while they fished the St. John’s River near Deland. We’d suck out the juice from a hole in the peel and then turn the whole fruit inside out to eat every luscious bit of those special seasonal snacks.

About an hour ago, the black-eyed peas were rinsed and covered with clean water and now those little gray and black pearls of goodness are simmering with seasoning of equal parts garlic, sugar and cider vinegar using our Best Ever Plain Ol’ Peas recipe that somebody found once in a Southern Living magazine.  The washed collard greens have been coarsely chopped and  boiled for several hours this morning, water gurgling around a big ham hock. Just a few minutes ago the ham was lifted out, chopped a bit and added back to the pot with the dark, bitter greens, now turned soft and almost sweet. We’ll serve a little hot pepper vinegar and some chopped sweet onions on the side for those who want to add them.

I sliced up some sticky okra pods and tossed them in cornmeal just like I was taught by our black housekeeper when I was a teenager.  The sticky seeds ooze around the edges clinging to the breading  and when the oil is hot and ready the okra is dropped in and fried until golden and crispy. When sprinkled with coarse salt, this okra will taste better than even the most perfectly cooked pommes frites, crunchy on the outside and soft, almost gooey inside, each piece popped into our mouths with our fingers.

The sweet potatoes, skins parched  and rippled  are moved from the smoker to a  large platter and opened with a fork to loosen all the steamy goodness. The caramelized, orange, stringy insides are pulling away from the peels and butter is spooned around to melt,  reminding me of my mother’s stories of taking baked sweet potatoes from her grandma’s warming oven and savoring them like candy treats.

Lumpy cornbread batter is mixed and poured into treasured hot cast iron skillets seasoned by years of cooking and now glistening with the drippings from a little fried fat back and melted butter. When removed from the oven, the resulting tender sweet innards surrounded by a crunchy brown crust will make the perfect accompaniment to our meal.

Using big wooden paddles my uncles designed just for the purpose, it takes two strong guys to lift the barbecue  from the smoker and place it on the long  wooden picnic table that has been covered with brown parchment paper. Large hunks of flesh and fat are pulled apart and then pushed aside to where a cleaver rocks back and forth until all the meat is chopped and  the outer crunchy brown, almost burned, bits are mixed with moist, tender chucks of meat and soft fat, then doused with a little more sauce as it is all tossed together. Like I said before, no one will know the difference. Our few family vegetarians are standing off to one side with strained looks on their faces, and I almost laugh. At a good Southern meal there are always enough vegetables to satisfy even the most committed non-meat eaters.

My youngest cousin dumps freshly shucked oysters from a bowl into a stew of cream, milk and crumbled bacon with yellow melted butter floating on top. He tastes it and adds a bit more fresh cracked black pepper before ladling some soup into each of the bowls placed at the opposite end of the table from the meat.  Over the years we’ve lost the taste for adding a little oyster liquor to the barbecue sauce as our ancestors did.  There’s a basket of saltines set down next to the bowls  for crumbling into the stew, no dainty oyster crackers for us.

We open an old rusted folding table and cover it with a white cloth to hold each of the side dishes being carried gingerly from the kitchen, many still in the pots or pans in which they were cooked.  In the center of the table, I place my cherished heirloom relish dish  filled with beets and pickles from my pantry and  chow chow and corn relish contributed by some of my cousins.  A large banana pudding  is brought from the refrigerator, creamy and pale yellow, with now soggy vanilla wafers layered around soft bananas, crunchy cookie edges poking out of the secret recipe custard. One young cousin sneaks an empty bowl from beside the oyster stew and, remembering how often he has encountered a dish emptied of this gooey, sweet treat when he returns for a serving after the main meal is finished,  he fills the bowl with pudding before reaching for a dinner plate.

A deep male voice begins to sing, “Bless this house, oh Lord, we pray,“ and we all join in,  the verses memorized in childhood as we sang them at every family gathering. We hold hands and look around as though we are trying to create a permanent picture in our minds of this scene that will never again be repeated.  As the singing ends, someone echoes the grace of an uncle long passed,  “Good food, Good family, Good God, Let’s Eat.”

And we do.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! Can't wait to hear what your teacher says. I've known you over 25 years and had no idea your Southern roots were this strong.You're making barbeque next time we're together- fo sure dahlin!