Barbecued Ribs and “The Best That Ever Was!”


Rock Island, IL

The youngest sees me shooting hoops in the drive-way. “Dad,” he says, “you’re the best that ever was!”

He sees me building bird houses. “Dad, you’re the best that ever was!” He sees me hanging awnings, cleaning gutters, diagnosing a noise under the hood, sweating copper, tying my tie, changing out the winter tires, telling blonde jokes on demand, reciting poetry at breakfast, making even his forearm ticklish: “Dad, you’re the best that ever was!”

Who taught him to say this?

The Best That Ever Was, of course.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. I take a break from planting Impatiens. He rebounds for me as I knock down fifteen straight bank-shots from fifteen feet. “What is it we say, buddy?”

“You’re the best that ever was!”

“That’s my boy! You always were my favorite!”

He’s also the one most interested in food. He’s got an ear unlike any of us—and we’re all musicians—but he’s got a nose and a palate unlike any of us too. (When he was three, and I was cutting into the first real tomato of the season, he happened to be walking through the kitchen. “I smell tomatoes,” he said, and stopped to take a look.)

Suddenly he wants to know what’s for supper. And lucky for me there’s such a beast on this unendingly intriguing earth, this goodly frame, this vast blue planet, as the pig.

“You’re in luck,” I say.

“In luck?” he asks, scrunching his face and intoning in a way I doubt Rich Little could imitate. “What the heck does that mean?”

I wince and look around. Whew! No mother in sight. “Heck” would not go down well with the distaff side, though I think it’s funny as hell (also not okay).

“You’re gonna like it,” I say. Because he is. The boy loves dead pig. He discovered bacon the way fourteen-year-old boys discover girls: fast. Fast and furious. Nor do the other cuts (of pig, not girls) displease him. And tonight he’s getting tenderloin ribs–brined, smoked, and chrismated in barbecue sauce.

Flashback to Friday. A school of fish filets swims on a sea of olive oil and lemon juice, each white flaky side absorbing a cayenne rub with various spices and a little black pepper showered on for good measure.

But The Best That Ever Was isn’t thinking only about tonight. He’s thinking about tomorrow, Saturday, Derby Day, mint juleps and sunshine and a goddess excellently bright, shimmering yet smouldering and appareled in celestial light, moving in and out of his utter and undeserving astonishment. (I’m married to her, he’ll think.) And, of course there’s the longing. Always the longing.

Long may the longing live! Long may it long! Long may those whom it longs cultivate the longing!

Which means take of hit of Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve or maybe even Old Grandad. They’re local enough. They come from a neighboring state. And what a good neighbor it is!

Flannery O’Connor was right. An arm of fire reaches down the throat and into the gut. And Walker Percy was also right. The gears catch. Comes again the longing!

So, though we’re having fish tonight, onto another platter go nine bone-in pork ribs. Nearby stands a pot, and in it the water has cooled. “What water?” you may ask. That, of course, is the brine. Into six cups of boiling water The Best That Ever Was has dissolved a half-cup of salt and a half-cup of brown sugar, and, now that the water has cooled, he’s added peppercorns and thyme.

Into a zip-lock bag go the ribs, and then the flood waters of the brine engulf them. Press out the air, seal the bag, and place it in a containment vessel—just in case. And then into the fridge it goes.

Ah, refrigeration! You’ll probably kill us in the end, but tonight we honor you. Better yet, we drink to you! He raises the tumbler, swirls it, tips it to behold its color in the afternoon light (comes again the longing!), and then sends another arm of fire not up but down its rightful chimney.

Molecules of gold and gray matter collide. Ah! What God has joined together, let no man put asunder!

Cut back to Saturday now and the basketball court. “What am I going to like?” he asks. “Is it carbonara?” Carbonara he knows—and adores. It’s bacon and eggs, after all (and cream and parsely and pepper and parmesan and pasta). My money says that when he’s eighty he’ll still think carbonara is better than regular daily trepidation of the bowels.

“Not carbonara,” I say. “But it is dead pig.”

“Is it sausage? Pork chops?”

“How old are you?”

“I’m seven and a half! I’m almost eight years old!”

“You’re sure you’re not, say, forty-eight?”

No I’m not forty-eight! You’re forty-eight. I’m not as big as you. When I’m as big as you, I’ll be forty-eight!”

“Well, buddy, you’re gonna like it. Now stand here and see if you can make twenty shots. Right hand behind the ball, guide hand here on the side, just like I showed you.”

“Can I start the grill?”

“You may. I’ll call you. Now practice, or you’ll never be the best that ever was also, or too, or next or … whatever.”

To the fridge. Ah, dead pig! With it to the countertop. Out of the brine and onto a platter go the ribs. I dab them dry and sprinkle them with a little pork rub, this too full of heat. What was porcine now is orange.

Zikes! The smoking chips, like my throat, are as dry as dust! (These chips come from the apple tree yonder. A branch here or there each fall, a little work with the hatchet, and there you have it: apple wood chips for smoking dead pig.)

Into a bucket of water go three hands-full of chips. Now out to the grill to get the coals going. What? Didst expect gas? Heresy! The word “grill” derives from a very old word whence also come “coal” and “wood.” Gas had not been invented back then. It derives from a later word, from which we also get “wus” and “sissy” and “First Things.”

The fire performs its ministry; so, too, the water. Back to the kitchen. But where’s the goddess excellently bright? Up the stairs to check the napping room. Ah, yes. There she is in the arms of my chief rival, sleep. It was a late night for her, and no doubt “the staffing was terrible.” I’ll hear about a man my age who had a massive M.I. Not good news for how I want to do the asparagus.

Asparagus! I almost forgot!

To the kitchen again, this time to separate the tips from the thicker stalks. The really think ends, purplish and tough, go into the compost. We’ll have braised asparagus with our ribs.

The coals are ready. Push them to one side. Strain the chips, put them on the coals, hear them hiss, and then place the ribs as far from direct heat as possible. Close the lid and watch the smoke billow out the vents. Check the thermometer. Anything above 250 or 275 is too hot. The gauge rises to … wait for it … two-sixty! I’m the best that ever was!

I’ve got about three hours. Time to decide on the other dishes. Baked beans? Potatoes? Makes no difference. These ribs will steal the show. Bread smeared with butter and sprinkled with chopped garlic, crisped under the broiler, is always a hit.

How about a mint julep? Yes, how about one. Uncle Will’s recipe, of course: crushed ice, dried and stuffed into the tumbler, sugar, mint leaves, and the long golden ribbon of Kentucky bourbon. Soon on someone’s TV they’ll be singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” May God bless that home. And may it continue to share its finest export with the upper Mississippi river region.

After ninety minutes I brush the ribs with BBQ sauce and add a few more pieces of fuel to the coals. After forty-five more minutes I turn the ribs and brush their other sides. In another forty-five it’ll be rib time.

Butter melts in a large pan, into which go the fatter stalks of asparagus. The heat is low. About ten minutes later in go the tender tips. Time now for salt and freshly-ground pepper. And, at the very last, I brush on a little pure maple syrup. This is best done over the coals, but I’ve got to keep a lid on the ribs, so I’m compromising. But this asparagus will be a real hit too.

Goddess sleepy-pie has risen. She’s sipping the mint julep I’ve made her. There’s about a thimble-full of bourbon in hers, else she’ll fall over. How differently we are made! The table is set. The children, filthy from play but, their hands clean, are assembled. Mr. Palate wants to pray, and he is not to be denied. He has an ear, a nose, a palate, and a will.

“Mmm! What’s that?” he asks, looking up from his deliberate cross, also a distinguishing characteristic of this peculiar boy.

“Barbecued ribs is what that is. Smoked.”

“Smoked? What the heck is smoked?”

Do I dare look up? I look up. I’m in trouble. He’s the one who has said it, but now I’m the one who’s in trouble.

And for other reasons. He’s digging into his barbecued rib. “This is great! I love barbecued ribs! “You’re the best that ever was, dad!”

They are good. You want tender and juicy pork, chicken, or turkey off the smoker? Don’t forget the brine.

I look at the goddess excellently bright. So does the boy. She looks at him. “You’re good too, Mom,” he says. “But dad’s the best that ever was.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” says the girl, the oldest, fully a teenager (“fully” as in The Best That Ever Was has no idea what he’s doing these days; parenting is plugging your nose and jumping in). “Dad taught him to say that.”

“It’s true,” says the older boy in his usual delicate manner: mouth stuffed full of food, face smeared, lips smacking, napkin already on the floor, where it’s likely to get more use anyway.

Expecting that wonted rolling of the eyes, I look up, grinning stupidly.

The eyes roll! But, lucky for me, the ribs don’t lie. Like Eve of old she appreciates the one she’s been given. And nowhere on this unendingly intriguing earth, this goodly frame, this vast blue planet, is there a goddess more excellently bright.

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