PALS is pleased to present a guest post taking us to the world of food blogging, specifically the glorious, smoky world of the delicious, time-honored traditions of barbecue. A few weeks ago we joked on Twitter that we were going to transition to becoming a barbecue blog due to the summer’s natural fall in readership. Thomas Hallock, our guest poster for this wonderful piece, graciously stepped up to the plate (maybe it’s better to say the fire?) to provide us with a timely summer post on barbecue and what happens when instructors, so often embedded in our work as teachers, step back and take on the mantel of student. We hope you enjoy this piece!
Mordecai Walker, 94, has been barbecuing a long time. He was born in 1924 on the Fourth of July, an African American in Jim Crow Florida. When he was six, Walker’s uncle and father got paid by the Tampa politician Peter O. Knight to cook a half cow. They kindled a fire under a metal box spring. The uncle started drinking, however, leaving young Mordecai to stoke the fire all night.
With Mr. Walker’s bbq, the key ingredient is smoke.
I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.
Southern bbq is easily romanticized. As a transplanted northerner, a white bourgie married to an Alabama native, I commonly cast my food as quest. I have dragged my mostly-vegetarian wife along the Great Southern Rib Trail, from the Rendezvous in Memphis to Tuscaloosa’s Dreamland. We have journeyed the four corners of the bbq map — from Fort Worth to Kansas City, central Virginia to Morven, Georgia — seeking perfection in sweet, fatty meat.
Surely Mr. Walker held some secrets. Maybe a marinade or dry rub? A butcher on the Southside I had overlooked? On the morning of July 3, I picked up Mordecai Walker to go shopping. He took me to Save-a-Lot, a discount grocer I typically avoid. We bought three slabs of shrink-wrapped ribs ($7.99 a pop), pre-made slaw, a pint of cider vinegar, and off-brand sauce.
When we passed briquettes in the aisle, Mr. Walker shuffled by. “Do we need charcoal,” I asked. Walker ignored me. He told me to bring firewood, preferably oak.
The next morning, sweltering before sunrise, I quartered a wheelbarrow of live oak logs. I showed up at Mr. Walker’s house a little before nine, my t-shirt soaked.
Mr. Walker led me to his Rib Corral, a custom-designed grill that could handle four slabs. He took a seat.
We started with fire. “Put the big pieces on first,” Mr. Walker instructed me. Ignoring my instincts, I set the two thickest logs (the only two unsplit) on the andirons, then quartered pieces on top. I doused the wood with a pint of lighter fluid.
The Rib Corral blazed.
Mr. Walker disappeared for the local July 4th parade, easing into a red Mercedes convertible to serve as grand marshal.
My fire sputtered. After the lighter fluid burned off, I was left with a scorched hulk. I squirted fuel like a teenage pyromaniac, but still, the unsplit logs would not catch.
I fretted then regrouped. I can build a fire, I reminded myself. I’m an Eagle Scout; okay, my mom made me finish — but still, I knew not to start with the biggest logs. So I grabbed my axe, split the quartered oak into toothpicks, and built a tidy log cabin over the smoldering mess.
An hour later, the Rib Corral was cooking.
Family, friends and neighbors gathered after the parade to celebrate Mr. Walker with orange juice and homemade strawberry shortcake. I changed my shirt, grabbed some cake, and returned to my station.
My unsplit liveoak logs now a bed of hot coals, I readied the meat. I set three slabs inside Mr. Walker’s patented Rib Slingers — long u-shaped bars, held fast with an oval clasp.
The pork sizzled and seared. I drank a Yuengling. Then two cans of lime LeCroix. I read some Juan Felipe Herrera. I flipped the Rib Slingers and rotated the three slabs over a hot spot on the grill. I sweat a lot.
Around one o’clock Mr. Walker took a seat by the Rib Corral. His son Andrew (who would not abide the Save-a-Lot sauce) doctored up a mustard, olive oil and cumin baste. We ladled on Andrew’s homemade sauce with a wooden spoon, moistening the char. The ribs were done. “Pretty good,” Andrew declared; “the average person won’t know the difference.”
But Mr. Walker made us wait. At his instruction, I stacked the Rib Slingers on one side, tented the slabs in tin foil, and let the dying coals season.
Finally, six hours after my first swing of the axe, we ate.
Sweet and savory pig meat, flesh pealing off the bone. Sides of Bush beans from the can and Save-a-Lot slaw.
I was too tired for the requisite social media pic.
After helping Andrew move back the patio furniture, I went home. It was three in the afternoon. I started splitting wood at eight that morning. Two hours building a bed of coals. Two hours grilling. Then clean up.
The secret to bbq is not the butcher or the sauce, the dry rub or marinade. According to Mr. Walker, the secret is patience and time. Or so he says.
The secret is also finding someone else to do the work.
After the party, I collapsed in bed, reeking of smoke.
Contributor Bio: Thomas Hallock is a Professor of English at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, where he is raising a teenage son with his partner Julie Armstrong (@civilrights_lit). Tom is currently at work on a collection of essays called A Road Course in American Literature, about why he loves teaching the U.S. survey to 1860. You can find Tom on Twitter here. All media included in this post comes courtesy of Tom.