Well, it’s February. And it’s still winter in Minnesota. Tho the sun may tarry in the sky now a few minutes longer than it once did, signifying, perhaps, that the summer processes have begun, I’m here to say, you can’t really tell. It’s just plain cold out. Snow still courts our yard, it’s still dark when I come home from work, and there is a patch of ice on the driveway that I think has been there since Thanksgiving. But that’s Minnesota. And after a while you simply come to accept your deep freeze situation in life, and just make the best of it. Indeed, there comes a point in every Minnesotan’s winter campaign where they acknowledge to themselves and the rest of the free world, that it’s not going to get any warmer for a while, and that they for one are done complaining about it. Mostly.
A good example of what I mean was found on my routine food sortie to the local Cub grocery store. There outside the motion activated sliding doors perched this lovely ice sculpture. I guess I can’t tell you what it is tho. Looks something like a duck and a man merged together, and carrying a purse. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. What matters, like all good gifts, is the thought behind it. The poetic triumph of it all. For here stands a sculpture really of what it means to be Minnesotan. To be stuck in the cold for half the year. Nay, half of your life, when you think about it. It is at once an icy monolith to the power of positive thinking! It says that life in the ice box has not gotten this soul down. That they will make the best of it, regardless. Lemonade, if you will, wrought from winter’s harshest fruit. Yup, that ice sculpture was much more than the tangible work of a talented person. It is a symbol of sanity when everyone around you is losing theirs. Odd that you can gleam so much just going to the store for some chicken wings, but it is so.
Later that evening, speaking of chicken wings, I fired up the old Weber kettle grill for supper. One of the things I like to do, when the charcoal chimney is under fire, is give it a little whack on it’s side with the tongs, and watch how the sparks scatter into the night. Sometimes it makes for interesting photos. Sometimes not. But even so, I enjoy the artistic spray of sparks flashing against a dark, wintry sky. It soothes me.
There is also a certain comradeship amid the coals. They give off two things a winter bound pit keeper craves: light and heat. And oh what a joy it is on these frosty winter evenings to bandy close to a hemorrhaging bed of orange coals. To feel the heat rolling out of the pit. It takes the sting out of the cold night, and loosens a stiffened soul. And for a while at least, you are content in your dark little corner of the globe, managing your meat over this beautiful bed of briquettes. Even in the middle of a Minnesota winter, out on the patio in the cold, there is joy to be found, patron to the pit. Like so many hardy folk around here, you just have to make the best of it.
These wings were seasoned first in one of our favorite blends, Poultry Perfection, from the great folks at Miners Mix. They’ve been awful good to us, and it’s our privilege to thank them yet again for sharing their wares with us. True spice wizards if ever we’ve seen any. Anyways, at the end of the cook, we glazed over the wings with some Sweet Baby Rays as per custom in BBQ fare, whilst back inside, some banter of the bodacious sort was at hand.
My bride whipped up a hearty batch of Miners Mix Bodacious Bean Dip. Mercy, it’s good stuff, people, very tasty, and one box seems more than plentiful, I might add. A plentiful bean dipping Nirvana. Plentiful also in the after effects come bed time, for thy cotton sheets may billow as if hit by a soft summer breeze. I almost slept on the couch that night if not for the mercy of my lovely wife. But like most good Minnesotans, she too made the best of it. We all did. Mostly. And Amen.
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It is a pleasant thing, the sound of a match striking the side of its patron box on a hushed, winter’s eve. Even that initial blast of sulfur off the flame, tho unruly and noxious, it still triggers memories long recessed for which I am glad. Memories of past cooks, and campfires, and fellowship with the flames.
Fire. It’s part of the allure of outdoor cooking, I think. We get to play with fire. Upon lighting the charcoal this evening, I may have regressed to the age of ten again, doing things I probably ought not to. But I couldn’t help it, it’s fire after all. That brilliant, orange-fluttering seduction of heat and light, that which boys are irrevocably drawn. And tonight, I frolicked in the flames. I noticed with tongs in hand, if I tapped a charcoal chimney that which smoldered heap full of maturing coals, I got an interesting result. One difficult however to appreciate at the default and governed speed of life. But if I froze the moment, for the moment’s sake, oh what startling beauty I discovered. And with the click of a shutter, the art of flame was beheld. Lovely vectors of light, and tracers of orange and yellow against a pale, blackened night. Articulate and unique, like a thumb print on fire. Very cool, I thought. And a fun, inaugural firework sort-of-way to kick off tonight’s grilling endeavor – the venerable bacon cheeseburger. So grab yourself a lovely beverage, and we’ll tell you a little more about it, and how it went and came to be.
After the initial fire lust had ebbed, I was able to prepare the patties. 80/20 ground beef as a rule, makes a very fine place to start with your hamburgers. We took a pound of it, and formed it into three, shapely and uniform patties. My bride expressed interest tonight, in keeping a handle, as it were, on my proclivity for experimental flavors. She just wanted a basic, and simple cheeseburger. And with bacon if I might. Well I can do that, I thunk. I’ve often croaked, after all, that “simple is the best design.”
“Very well“, I declared, “tonight’s feast shall be simple.”
Keeping to the simplistic theme, I dusted the patties lightly with only salt and pepper. Oh I was eyeing my racks of assorted spice and flavors, and tho it was difficult, I resolutely resisted. After the coals were scattered to the back side of the old kettle grill, setting it up for in-direct grilling operations, I ceremoniously tossed on a small chunk of cherry wood, just because. I found I rather like a bit of smokey taste to my burgers, and cherry wood is darn near about my favorite. I gently placed the patties over direct heat for a little while per side, lightly searing them there, and then inserted my tongs directly into the center of the BBQ grate, and with a torque of the wrist, twisted the entire grate, burgers and all, 180 degrees, thus putting all the patties simultaneously opposite the hot coals. A little trick Weber owners pick up on right away, courtesy of their inherent circular grates. I love that sort of thing!
The rest of the cook would be spent in-direct, bathed in that lovely and aromatic cherry wood smoke. We put some of the double cold smoked bacon we did up the other week, alongside the burgers. Bacon on the stove top is delicious, nobody will deny that. But bacon done out on the grill, over smokey hard wood flames, is point-blank out of this world. Yum! Anyways, with the sounds of muffled traffic in the distance, the night waxed ever darker whilst I dawdled out by the pit. It wasn’t too cold tonight, only zero degrees or something, and I could manage just fine in my smoking jacket. I stood henceforth abreast the pit, like men do, wallowing in the wondrous aromas belching forth there, and thinking for a moment, about burger craft.
Burgers are such personal things, I thought. Sort of like a blank canvas to start, and a pit master proper, puts his or her own unique stamp on it. Makes it their own. There is no one-and-only, nor singularly right way to make them, and that right there is where the science parleys to art. And maybe that is why I like grilling burgers so well, along with all the BBQ arts. Each creation a potential masterpiece. Each cook a personal journey. And for the string of moments whilst you’re at the grill front, steady-footed and tongs in hand, you are at once the resident Monet of Meat. You really are! At least in your own mind you are. And this then is your art. So be proud then in what you have done there, aside licking flames and pastel evenings, where the wood smoke gently rises. Amen.
Though the snow may be cold
And the wind chills the air
Associates gather to bend their wit
These two logs have held the cheeks
Of Patrons of the Pit
Conversations of brisket cuts
And ribs that drip with flavor
To watch your cronies eat with joy
And sacrifice dietary behavior
The culinary dares may bet and fly
To see who alters the plan
The recipe changes from bloke to bloke
Yet still fill the greasy drip pan
Though our pits don’t always look the same
The outcome still comes together
To give your smoke some bragging rights
Because you have smoked in astringent weather…
No, I do not speak of the kind of smoking jacket you’re probably thinking of. The purple-velvet sort worn by gentlemen of high leisure, who own a humidor, and pace about in front of their fireplace with a pipe in hand, attempting to look thoughtful. No, the jacket I speak of is more humble than that, but equally as enchanting. And if you tend the grill year-around, and live in the colder places, you probably have one too. Indeed, it is the jacket we dawn most when favoring our spoils over a beautiful bed of coals, pit-side, amid the rising wood smoke. It is our smoking jacket, and it is well with our souls.
My go to grilling jacket is a thick, red and black, checkered affair, and made entirely of wool. It has just enough pockets to hold the various spices allotted for the cook, a book of matches, and a couple of cold hands. But what it holds best, is smoke. Something about the woolen fibers which absorb and record a tapestry of cooks in the out-of-doors. Grill-side gems I am reminded of every time I slip into its heavy sleeves, and I smell the aromas patron to the good life, and the memories procured there. It all tarries quietly in the smoke.
Memories of a thousand and one heady cook outs, on crisp, autumn days and frigid, starry nights. Of blizzards, and Christmas hams. And tho I never wear it in the warmer months, it even reminds me gently of Memorial Day cook-outs, and long Fourth of July smokes, beneath a balmy sun. Oh yes, if smell is linked with memories, and science has proven this to be so, then a smoking jacket proper beholds a lifetime supply of them. A cornucopia of moments, doing something we love, preserved in smoke. And tho I may not have the fanciest smoker, or the biggest grill, nor the covetous meat budget of some other guys, even so, every time I put on the smoking jacket, and smell the gloried past upon it, I know that I am favored, and a considerably a rich man. Amen.