Pot Luck: Do it now. Whatever it is.

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I grew up on barbecue. Nothing fancy, mind you. Our first barbecue—the first one I knew personally—was a bucket-style cast iron hibachi. Here it is:

12th bday bbq 1970

That was my twelfth birthday party with my three best friends, Mickey, Diane, and Emily. In case you don’t recognize me, I’m the one hamming it up for the camera.

But the important thing in this picture is the hibachi. That’s what I learned to barbecue on. No bells, no whistles, just you and the coals, and a need to time them just right.

As an adult, I moved up a bit in the barbecue world and got a pretty red Meco that stood me in good stead for several years.

Since virtually every photo I’ve taken since 1989 is in one of several large boxes in my office (see Confessions of a Pack Rat), here’s a generic picture of a Meco like the one we had.

Oh, how we loved that Meco. It was there that I really learned the ins and outs of barbecue, from burgers and hot dogs to kabobs and chicken satay to our fabulous marinated tri-tip. By the time we moved to Wisconsin, we’d gotten into the habit of barbecuing several times a week, year-round.

You can’t do that in Wisconsin, by the way. In these parts, you get to barbecue from May to October if you’re lucky, and more likely only in June, July, and August.

And when I moved to Wisconsin in 2000, I left my barbecue behind. Not because I didn’t want to barbecue anymore, but because it just wasn’t practical to move the dirty old thing, much as I loved it. I told myself I could just get a shiny new one for forty-some bucks after we got to Wisconsin.

But when we got to Wisconsin, I couldn’t find one. It was September, and barbecue season was over. The idea of a barbecue season hadn’t occurred to me, but in any event I had to wait until summer rolled around again. And when it did, I couldn’t find a Meco anywhere. There were imitators, of course, but all of the other charcoal grills I found seemed either too flimsy or too fancy.

The fad in Wisconsin at this time was gas. Gas, with every imaginable bell and whistle.

I didn’t want a gas unit. It just wouldn’t be the same. The key in all of my barbecue history is charcoal. Ah, the smell of a fire just getting underway— To me, that is the smell of summer. (That and Sea & Ski, which they don’t make anymore.) And the taste of food cooked over a just-right bed of glowing charcoal simply can’t be compared.

But my well-meaning husband (then boyfriend) talked me into it. It’s cleaner, he argued. You won’t need to worry about disposing of the ashes. You don’t have to wait for the coals to be ready, and you don’t have to worry about leaving it unattended—you just shut off the gas when you’re done.  Plenty of good arguments in favor of gas grilling.

I had misgivings, but I went out and got the best dang gas barbecue I could find. Well, OK, the best I was willing to pay for. It was a Char-Broil with a side burner, which was very de rigueur back then, you know.

But I hated it.

HATED it.

It felt like cheating. I was always afraid I would leave (or had left) the gas on, it didn’t smell right, and worst of all, there was no ritual. Finally, no matter what I did, the food tasted all wrong.

Tom said I’d get used to it—I just had to use it more often, he said, and I’d learn to love it.

But I didn’t. Didn’t use it much, and hated it every time I did use it. Every time I was in a box store, I’d look longingly at the charcoal grills. But we’d spent enough on this one to have trouble justifying the purchase of another grill of any kind. It still worked fine after twelve years.

Yes, I said twelve years. But then everything changed. And the reason was seemingly minor: In 2012, my youngest son requested carne asada for his birthday dinner.

After twelve years, I’d gotten to the point where I barbecued only two or three times a year, and I didn’t enjoy it. All the fun and skill had gone out of it.

But I never refuse a birthday dinner request, and I decided I simply was NOT going to make carne asada on the gas grill. So I got out the flimsy little tabletop charcoal unit we kept in the RV and put it together.

Here’s his birthday dinner cooking:

carne asada cooking 5-16-12

And oh, the joy, the rapture I got from every single step! Stacking the coals just so, squirting just the right amount of fluid on them, starting them in six different spots, the satisfaction of watching the flames flare and then die down as the coals began to ash over.

(This is the point where inexperienced barbecuers so often think the fire has gone out, and they pour more lighter fluid over the coals and re-light them. It hasn’t gone out. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.)

And oh, the smell, the wonderful smoky smell of that little barbecue—the smell of summer!

As I cooked that carne asada, I realized that I had wasted twelve years, that twelve summers had passed without the wonderful, incomparable, fabulous odor of charcoal burning. The finished product was just what it should have been–tender, tasty, cooked to perfection–and properly smoky.

I did use the gas grill a couple of times after that, but meanwhile I spent the whole of last summer also researching charcoal grills and keeping my eye on the box-store sales. I eventually found the grill I wanted (still no Mecos in these parts, but something I think will be even better), but by the time I found what I wanted, nobody had any of them.

But this weekend I found one. It’s a Char-Broiler 2929, and it was very reasonably priced, much cheaper in fact than the gas grill I bought twelve years ago. Tom put it together yesterday. Here it is, ready for its maiden voyage:

IMG_1692

I seasoned it yesterday afternoon and fired it up for the first time last night.  Stacked the coals, lit them, and went in the house to get the burgers.

When I came back outside, my very first breath told me I’d done the right thing, and had waited much too long to do it.   The whole world smelled like summer, the way summer is supposed to smell.

My middle son has gleefully taken possession of the gas grill, which still works just fine. But as for me, I’m sticking with charcoal from here on out. There’s just nothing else like it.

If there’s something you used to enjoy, that you think you’ll never do again, let me assure you, it’s not too late. Do it now.

Whatever it is.

Don’t let another day, week, or month go by. Do it now.

Pot Luck: Confessions of an Unrepentant Pack Rat

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I should probably start by saying there’s a difference between a pack rat and a hoarder.

We’ve all heard of hoarders. These are the people who can’t find space to walk in their own homes, or who have aisles arranged in their living and dining rooms so they can. They amass piles and piles of stuff that to normal people appears to be worthless trash.

Hoarders make the news. When their collections create a health hazard or a public nuisance, the Health Department comes in and condemns their homes and hires a crew to come in and clear out all their belongings. Hoarders sometimes wind up in court, and in worst-case scenarios, mental wards. People laugh at them.

I’m not a hoarder.

Yet.

But I am a pack rat.

I come by it honestly. My parents, both children of the Depression, were also pack rats. My mom, raised on a farm where nothing ever went to waste and nothing repairable was ever thrown away, was mortally offended by the idea of planned obsolescence, and she used appliances until they were irreparable. Radios, toasters, electric mixers, TV sets, VCRs, microwave ovens—all, in her mind, could and should be repaired, not replaced, if they stopped working. She used the same hand-held mixer all my life, and it still works. I have it here somewhere.

She also hung onto a wide variety of paraphernalia related to the numerous projects and hobbies in which she involved herself over the years: A set of resin grapes she and her sister made in 1968 and the rock tumbler she bought in 1971; candle-making supplies from the early 70’s; a couple of tennis racquets in wooden frames; gold leaf from her cloisonné period; a set of golf clubs from the 50’s; a pair of wooden skis and poles from the 40’s, and skeins and skeins of yarn she used for knitting and crocheting afghans, as well as several of the afghans themselves. She kept it all because you never know when you’re going to decide to come back to an old hobby again. But she kept it all neatly stashed in closets and in the garage (which also held her car), so it was all out of sight if not out of mind.

The only thing that wasn’t out of sight was her art. Paintings on every wall. Easily a hundred of them. Some of them quite good.

My dad was also a pack rat, but for different reasons. He had a lot of space at his house—the garage, a rec room, a horse stable that in later years was empty of horses, and closets galore. He had plenty of room for stuff, which was a good thing because whenever a member of his or his wife’s family passed away, their stuff found its way to his house.

The way my dad saw it, if nobody else in the family wanted it, or if there was nobody left in the family to want it, that didn’t mean it didn’t have value—and it was up to someone to keep it safe. So he appointed himself as Someone. The Caretaker.

He had it all fairly well organized: My stepmom’s Uncle Jimmy’s stuff was in the entry hall closet; her mother’s was in a front bedroom (which was mine as a child); her Aunt Margaret’s was in the attached two-car garage, along with mountains of boxes from his own earlier years, containing, among other things, some of my great-aunt’s china, an assortment of architectural pieces from the house his grandfather built in Redlands, CA in the late 1800’s, and all of his grandfather’s now-antique tools.

I understood my mother’s need to save things just in case, and my dad’s need to archive everything. My parents are gone now—my dad in 2003, my stepmom in 2005, and my mom in 2010—but I have all of their stuff, including everything I rescued from my dad’s house after it burned down, very little of which has any value as nearly all of it is either burned or smoke-damaged. Why do I have it all? Because it’s now my turn to be Someone.

Fortunately, I have a big house with a full basement, and not one but two pole barns.

And they have aisles.

The only room in the house itself that so far has been overrun is my office, which still contains boxes and boxes of my parents’ stuff. I have no use for any of it—not in my office, not in the basement, not in the barn—but having my parents’ stuff keeps them close, and throwing any of it away feels like I’m throwing them away.

I’m just not ready to do that.

My husband, whose philosophy is that one’s memories are safe in one’s heart and soul and therefore have no need for physical representation, reminds me gently but with increasing frequency of my promise to go through all of my parents’ stuff, to donate, to throw away, to organize. I approach each summer and winter break with plans to get just one of the areas under control, just to prove that I can.

But summer break passes, and the aisles remain.

It’s no laughing matter.

Pot Luck: Happy Father’s Day

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In the United States and many other countries, this Sunday is Father’s Day. The brainchild of Hallmark or some other greeting card company a century or so ago, and entirely commercial from its inception, the day has become iconic. Millions of Americans from coast to coast will get together with family if they can, barbecuing, exchanging cards and gifts, and generally honoring the men who gave them life.

For most Americans, Father’s Day is a happy occasion. If you haven’t bought a card or gift yet, a phone call on the day itself (before ten or eleven pm, please) will sometimes suffice.

But many of us don’t have that option. For many of us, Father’s Day is a day we look forward to with tears in our eyes.

My tears decided not to wait for the big day itself. This morning, browsing my Facebook feed, I ran across the following video:

(OK, it’s not loading. It’s a one-minute video that shows a crowd of people on the beach with about five large airline kennels. The kennel doors are opened, and a young elephant seal emerges from each one, looks around, and then makes its way into the sea. As the last one heads into the waves, there’s applause from the spectators. It’s very touching.)

My father lived in Malibu, on Point Dume, mere steps from Paradise Cove, where this video was shot. We fished from the pier you see in the video clip, and once took a deep-sea fishing trip that embarked from there. I grew up riding my horse on that beach.

As I watched the video, with every frame, my vision grew a little blurrier and I slid farther and farther back in time until I was ten years old, scavenging in the Paradise Cove tide pools at low tide:

me paradise cove age nine

You can just see the Paradise Cove pier in the background.

Everything about Malibu–the beach, the sand, the tides, the wind, the salty air–is about my dad, who taught me to be independent and self-sufficient, to revere family, to be fascinated by history, philosophy, poetry, and science, and to never be afraid to try something that only boys were supposed to be able to do. My dad was awesome. Here I am with him when I was three:

dad and me, 1962

My father passed away in 2003. This will be the ninth Father’s Day I haven’t been able to hear his voice resonating across the two-thousand-mile distance I now so regret having put between us when I chose to make a life in Wisconsin. Of course I still hear it in my mind—I can imagine what we might say, if I could call him, and I can still hear his voice as if we had spoken only yesterday–but it’s not the same.

Others struggle with Father’s Day for other reasons. Perhaps there’s been a family feud of some kind, and you and your father are no longer speaking.

If, like me, you’ll spend Sunday missing and celebrating the life of a man you can no longer call on the phone (for whatever reason), you understand the bittersweet nature of Father’s Day.

But for millions of others, the day continues to be what it was meant to be: Commercial, yes, but for once, commercial in a good way. My eldest son will celebrate his very first Father’s Day this weekend, his son having just been born in March. And my youngest son will also be a father before the year is out.

IMG_1295

The Circle of Life must continue, with all of the love and hate and pain and grief and joy that accompany it. Father’s Day is a day of contrasts.

So I wish a Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there, but especially to my own dad, and also to my sons, with whom the cycle now begins anew and for whom it will continue until their own little sea lions swim out to sea.

How do you celebrate Father’s Day? Is it a happy day for you, or a difficult one?

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