Tag Archives: passion

Smokin’ in the Rain

I’m rushing through my last class of the week: 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. One of my students, a gifted writer who sits immediately adjacent to my desk says, “If I’m not done, can I stay late to work on this assignment?” Ordinarily, I might acquiesce and let her stay, for a few minutes at least; but today, by this time of day, I am ravenous, bordering on hangry. I also have a date in Salt Lake City with my neighbors, Kurt and Jonelle, good friends whose side business, Sorry Charlotte, I intend to write about. I apologize to my student’s waiting eyes: “Sorry, I have a smoking date.”

The classroom gets very quiet. I look up to a roomful of aghast thirteen-year-old faces. I’m not sure which part of my comment is more shocking – the implication of an affair or of smoking – so I rush to clarify.

“Smoking meat. With friends. At a competition in Salt Lake City… You know: bar-be-que.”*

*

When I first befriended Kurt and Jonelle several years ago, I came away with a sense of admiration. They had a poker room filled with neon signs, two ancient outhouses in the backyard, and a smoker that Kurt had repurposed from an old refrigerator. He is a born tinkerer. I’ve since come to recognize his abiding passion for neon and for smoking. Kurt often supplies wings, ribs, chicken, or pulled pork for social gatherings. As a neighbor, I am frequently assailed by the mouthwatering aromas of his practice pit runs, wafting on the eastern wind towards my front door.

For this competition, he replaced the refrigerator with an uninterruptable power source, converted from its first iteration as a back-up power supply in the basement of a school. He also brought two offset smokers for nighttime smoking and a great deal of apple wood, sourced from his native Sanpete County. (Offset smokers burn wood in a side compartment, letting smoke waft into a main compartment, where the meat cooks.)

*

Jonelle and I pull into the Sam’s Club parking lot at 4 o’clock. Kurt’s crew arrived earlier and has set up the trailer, smokers, and wood in the southeast corner of the lot. They attend the chefs’ pre-competition meeting. This competition is one of many Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) regional events in its 2017 National Pro Barbeque Tour.

Kansas City comprises one of many styles of smoking meat (other styles include Texas, Memphis, and North and South Carolina). KC-style is meat-centric, owing to its historical meat-packing roots. (Click here for a style breakdown.) Each style has devotees who swear that their style is superior.

*

Sorry Charlotte has been competing for three years. They finished their first competition in last place, but scored second in pork at the Mark Miller Subaru Spring Fling earlier this year and tenth place in ribs at last fall’s Wild West BBQ Shootout in Wendover – confidence bumps that propelled them into this KCBS challenge. All of the team members have day jobs: Kurt is an electrician by trade; Kevin, a long-time veteran in the food service industry; Luke teaches history; and Brad works in money lending. Many of their competitors have more experience and more time to practice the craft of smoking and tweaking recipes; some operate professional barbeque establishments. In light of their recent placements, it’s fair to surmise that Sorry Charlotte has the drive and potential to seriously contend with their competitors. (Although, I should add that all participants share an air of camaraderie, greeting and encouraging each other, and even offering samples of their finished products. The atmosphere in general is genial and sportsmanlike.)

In addition to the wittiest name on the competition roster, Sorry Charlotte has heart and is a labor of love among its members. Any casual observer watching the team analyze their efforts can see their sharp focus. They huddle closely and confer in quiet tones, tasting as they go: “We did that last time,” says Kurt of the pork. “I think it’s good.” Kevin nods in agreement.

As the story goes: that’s some pig.

The team will compete in all four categories: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket, which is the most difficult to perfect. “It’s a tough hunk of meat,” says Kurt, holding up a piece of his own brisket, which is charred all around and ringed with thick pink smoke. “You’re trying to get it tender and easy to pull apart.” Challenge notwithstanding, the team seems pleased with their burnt ends.

Sorry Charlotte wants to do well, of course, but they also want to make scrumptious barbeque. Though this is my first time meeting some of the team, who warmly welcome me to share the close quarters of the trailer, I am equally impressed by their own respective fervors for the art of smoking delicious meat.

*

Jonelle and I pull up to the trailer around 9:30 on Saturday morning, after a luxurious and restful night in a downtown hotel. Rain spatters the asphalt. We find the group gathered inside and offer them drugstore ponchos, which, we realize with a pang, we forgot to give them the night before. Kurt steps outside to check the smokers, a task he and the team have repeated throughout the night. I ask him how he’s holding up. “I’m tired,” he says, smiling, but raking his hand over bloodshot eyes. By my estimation, he’s been awake for over 30 hours. He pretends to cry, but quickly stops and gives me a stern look. “There’s no crying in barbeque.”

This is Kurt, not crying.

Heavy storm winds blew through the area in every conflicting direction the night before. The dismal forecast announced snow and rain, overnight and well into the morning. We discover that weather conditions have brought the smokers’ temperature down. Kurt, in characteristic good nature, announces that the temperature’s “not ideal.” A quick brainstorm introduces the idea of setting up a canopy over the smokers. Temperatures recover within minutes. Kevin does a dance when Brad’s phone chimes.

When Kevin isn’t dancing, he’s smokin’ in the kitchen.

The group is cheerful inside the trailer, which has been retrofitted with a full prep table and second work sink. Space in the trailer is spare, so every clean counter is prime real estate, and, though Jonelle demures about being part of the team, she and Kevin’s wife, Mary, both work steadily behind the scenes to make sauces, clear spaces, and put away tools and ingredients to maximize the group’s efficiency, as do Luke and Brad. They think and operate as a true team.

Mid-morning, Kurt dresses the ribs on both sides with an inch-thick layer of brown sugar, margarine, honey, and onion powder, before wrapping the ribs in foil and returning them to finish off. Activity in the trailer increases proportionally to the proximity of noon, when judging begins. The team dips and sauces the chicken, analyzing the texture of the skin, which has been a challenge for them. (Recently, they’ve experimented with leaving half of the skins on and half off, and also with meat glue, to varying degrees of success.) Kevin’s prepped the meat boxes with beds of green leaf and romaine lettuce, on which the meats will rest, and the parsley that will garnish the finished entries. Appearance is an easy category in which to score, but even contest judges eat with their eyes first, so the team is careful to present their hard work in an appealing manner.

Kevin and Brad set up the chicken box.

These are Sorry Charlotte’s tensest moments – the half hour increments in which they cut the finished meat, analyze it for the choicest, most attractive bits, and arrange it in competition-approved clamshells to deliver to the judges. Brad and Kevin painstakingly adorn each completed dish with parsley, their eyes intent on the clock. Finished products must arrive to the judges on the minute. Even a second’s delay results in being disqualified, or DQ’d.

Once they’ve wiped the meat boxes clean of stray sauce, they secure the lids and walk the meat to the judges’ table. Their pace is stealthy and deliberate through 1:30 p.m., when they deliver their final dish – the brisket – and begin the process of cleaning up. The mood in the trailer snaps quickly back to joking and laughter.

Brad and Luke walk the meat to the judges.

*

Whether it’s the weather, the presence of a newbie interloper, or just bad luck, Sorry Charlotte doesn’t place as highly as they would like in the competition. Kurt and Jonelle return home late Saturday afternoon, a little sad, but with their thoughts on the next competition. “If you know Kurt,” says Jonelle, smiling mischievously, “by tomorrow, he’ll have a whole new game plan ready to go.” This, I think, is the biggest lesson about competitive barbeque: its participants are fierce, inspired, and unlikely to give up in the face of defeat or unremitting wind and rain. Determination and stamina hold them aloft through a long night of keeping the fires lit. They give the effort their very best. They understand, as Kurt aptly pointed out, there’s no crying in barbeque.

Many thanks to the Sorry Charlotte team for inspiring and fun insights into the world of competitive BBQ!

* Fellow spelling sticklers, take note: Meat heated by fire is commonly spelled ‘barbecue’ with a ‘c’. In this essay, I will be using a ‘q’, because the abbreviation is BBQ, not BBC.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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A Real Job

Twice now, I have overheard my husband talking to his family and implying that I am not gainfully employed. “If I died tomorrow,” he says, “Jules would have to go and get a real job.” He’s right and he’s wrong. I do have a job; two, in fact. I am a mother and I teach middle school Humanities. The latter arrangement is purposefully part-time.

Several years ago, I was killing myself working full-time for a supervisor who delighted in disparaging me, taking credit for my writing, and making me cry. Other people were raising my children, witnessing their accomplishments and milestones while I reported daily for the abuse of my self-esteem. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2010, I experienced the type of enlightenment that comes from sudden shock: in my case, a crushing loss that gave me the clarity and strength I needed to change. I quit my job to become a freelancer and occasional tutor.

I have not regretted my choice to be present for my children or the pay cut that came with it. I drop the kids off at school each morning, and I greet them happily when they return home. I sign the permission slips; I help with the homework. So, yes, my husband is right: a significant downturn in life would force me to secure a more lucrative paycheck. But he’s wrong, too. Parenthood is my foremost imperative: a job I perform with diligence and pride.

*

My son, Kai, keeps a journal in his fifth grade class, and we trade off writing entries to one another every day after school. He writes about what he’s been learning and how he feels. The journal provides a complex synthesis of his innermost thoughts and perceptions. He tucks in stickers and inspirational quotes. I delight in giving him wacky responses, just to see if he notices. (He does.) I cherish these little conversations.

Third grade Kai.

Third grade Kai.

Kai is the reason I transitioned into teaching. I knew that I wanted to be involved in my children’s education. When I saw an opportunity four years ago, I applied for the job, eager to work with middle school minds and perform the unspoken requirements needed to work with my own kids in the future.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

*

At work, I channel the outspoken individuals who taught me in junior high: Mr. Homer, Mr. Goldberg, the Highlands, and Miss Becker, who revolutionized my ninth grade world by welcoming me into her AV girl squad. I remember small details about them: the way Mr. Homer adapted 60s song lyrics and serenaded his students; the talk Mr. Highland gave science class about “bowel massage.” Mr. Goldberg administered well-timed hugs, and to this day I envision Mrs. Highland’s prodigiously-lined eyes widening in admiration, chiffon sleeves billowing: “They called him Seurat, the Dot.”

I often wonder how those teachers did it. What compelled them to work with a bunch of foul-mouthed, loosely disciplined, pimply adolescents who weren’t even their own kin? And how did they contribute so much of their hearts without certainty that the investment of their time and energy would be returned or acknowledged? They provided light along the path to individuality.

*

Once, I asked my students why they thought I came to work every day. “You got the job because of your husband,” guessed one. “You really like working with kids,” said another. A third, barely looking up from his handheld technology, offered: “It’s your dream job!”

It isn’t, and I don’t always love it. Sometimes middle school students are obnoxious and gross. When one of my boys mutters something – usually a dirty joke or song lyric – that makes all the girls collectively gag and recoil, I roll my eyes and question if this is how the universe truly wants me to measure the worth of my days. Is this the work I’m supposed to do? Because I remember my teachers so fondly, and because my co-workers seem to thrive at what they do, I sometimes feel like the odd-person-out who views teaching as a job, rather than a passion.

*

Students in my classes probably won’t remember what a dependent clause is or why an Oxford comma makes a difference to the reader. They could not care less about plot lines, context, or hubris. They might remember that I treat fictional characters as if they are personal friends and stammer when I speak too fast. With any luck, they’ll intuit the broader lesson: that whether they’re creative or cranky, flippant or funny, they matter. They can live, talk, think, and act authentically, even if it takes them some time to put all those connections together. Those who have found their voices should help those who haven’t.

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*

At the end of the day, my reach in the classroom is finite and comprises only a fraction of potential influence. I strive to do well, though as summer break approaches and my students’ attention spans grow shorter, success is difficult to gauge. The work I do at home, however, offers immediate, enduring results. It is never far from my mind that the two students I care and advocate for most are the ones who share a roof with me.

Kai is one grade away from middle school. It’s greedy to covet his time in the classroom and at home, but there are so many books to read with him and so many writing prompts I’d love to learn his responses to. I have no doubt which job holds the greater value.

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

*****

With sincere gratitude to all of the teachers – in middle school, before and

after – who lit the way with love and support.

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Cooking for Friends

House Rule #1: Maximum Fun!

One of the finest aspects of a work schedule structured around the academic school year is the three-month reprieve that marks summer vacation.  An educator devotes all of her year to working with students – long hours, wearying weeks and responsibilities that seem never to end, bewildering efforts that are seldom adequately compensated… at least, not by salary.  Boarding school life adds extra pounds to the professional weight, since school life is inseparable from home life.  A teacher or tutor remains a teacher or tutor, on-call even at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.  This uninterrupted stress is relieved on the last, blessed day of the school year.

We seize upon the freedom of summer as hungrily as if we’ve been on a yearlong cleanse.  I untether myself from tutoring appointments, becoming a freewheeler who runs at six in the morning and stays out late with friends if she feels like it; released from his second home in the classroom, my husband stays up all night and sleeps until noon.  We use the humble savings we’ve accumulated throughout the year to travel: visiting family, camping, and making the annual pilgrimage to the cabin my grandfather built for my grandmother, nestled deep in the woods of central Idaho.  This year, we invited friends to join us.

I love working at a boarding school.  I love the high school students’ energy, I’ve met incredible faculty families from around the world, and I have never had so many engaging, quirky lunchtime conversations.  My friends are some of the hardest working teachers, counselors, tutors, and administrators I know.  My life is better for knowing them, which is why I thought it would be fun to invite them to my own private Idaho – to commune, cook for them, and laugh without reserve.

*

I’ve been coming to the log cabin since I was a baby.  I have pictures to prove it: a chunky toddler, all pudgy thighs and blond ringlets in a flowered swimsuit, wiggling her toes in the riverbank’s soft, white sand; a seven-year-old brunette in a short sleeved red dress, gazing out the window of a car into a swath of established, fragrant ponderosas, blurred olive and amber brown; a gawky teenager, outfitted in silver braces and a strange black skirt, caressing her aunt’s thick-haired Kairn Terriers; a bride on her wedding day, resting on a bed of pine needles outside the kitchen window.  I married at the little church in the wildwood.  I catered my own reception and held it at the cabin, where we blew bubbles over the river and partied long into the night at the town saloon.

Of all the places I’ve lived or travelled to, the cabin feels most like home.  I feel most like myself there.  I remember how much my grandfather enjoyed inviting guests to the cabin, particularly in autumn when the sycamore trees flared golden before browning and shedding their leaves in the river.  He flourished in the company.  He loved playing Scrabble late into the night (and he usually won – with triple word scores using the high-point letters).  I think he also savored his guests’ appreciation of the home he’d built in the woods, of the area’s raw scenic beauty. I hope to perpetuate my grandfather’s legacy of laughter and communion by sharing the cabin with friends.

*

On this trip, I cooked:

Kielbasa with wild rice, green beans, green salad
Penne alla vodka, garlic bread, crisp salad
Pulled pork in spicy chipotle sauce, jasmine rice, black beans with green chiles
Gruyere egg casserole with mushrooms and tomatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes
Crème brulée bread pudding and margarita lime pie (a birthday celebration!)

My friends asked: “Are you sure you want to cook for us?” Unequivocally yes.  I would make a living out of it if I could.  The act of food preparation quiets my frenetic mind; sharing with others soothes my soul.  Their pleasure is my pleasure; their company, my extreme good fortune.  Cooking for them is an earnest gesture of appreciation.

While our children played in the river, riding its currents on ancient black rubber inner tubes and building castles in the sand, I held vigil in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and sautéing.  My friends went on hikes, biked the area trails, tubed, read books, and sunbathed.  I registered their comings and goings as I cooked, smiling into the pans sizzling on the stove, and squeezed in pockets of time to run, read, and write as well. When we all sat down at the dining table, huddled together under the big brass lantern, the rugged outline of pine trees silhouetted in dwindling evening light, I watched my friends dig into what I’d made, delighted by their enjoyment and delighted to share this time with them.

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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