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!”

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