My sisters and I had dinner together this past Labor Day Weekend. Sue drove over from Wheaton, and Dianne drove down from Philadelphia. I was a seven-eighths bachelor. The kids – all but Caleb – were scattered out of town. Allie, the “outest” of town, was in Sweden, Chip in Mt. Airy, and both Em and Gin were shepherding Calvin, Gracie and Gifford in Williamsburg. Alice and her mom had traveled to Boston. So, it was a rare quiet weekend at home for me, visiting with Dianne and Sue.
Dianne’s life recently took a complicating turn. She’s been diagnosed with neuro-endocrine cancer and will begin chemo in a week or so. Her diagnosis was the thing of which we all were aware, but about which we were somewhat reluctant to speak. At least I was. Still, it framed the occasion, and for much of the evening, this news channeled the conversation to lighter things. We talked about our jobs, nieces and nephews, the new roof, the gate I’d repaired, my plans to do some edging for flowerbeds. But it had also given a particular culinary purpose to the evening.
These days, barbeque sauce comes out of a bottle with trendy additives: onions, mesquite, Jack Daniels. No real prep. No real gourmet artistry. Just slice the paper seal. Twist off the cap. Squirt it out. Slather it on. Dianne knew her chemotherapy would begin soon. In anticipation of its side effects, and wanting to strike while the appetite was still hot, she phoned with a very simple request. My mission, should I decide to accept it, was to recreate Frank Heidel’s barbeque chicken.
I can remember playing basketball on our Tobin Circle driveway as a junior high and senior high schooler. My neighborhood friends came over and we rammed around, firing jumpers, laying lay-ups, dribbling well with our right hands (not so well with our left hands), fouling each other, and complaining when we were fouled. It was on this driveway where my dad would spot and fire-up the charcoal grill for some delicious chicken. Not infrequently these pick-up hack fests were the sideshow to Frank’s barbeque. “Watch the grill,” he would caution us in a low growl, not sure we were ever really listening. “Yes sir, Mr. Heidel,” was the reflexive answer. Surprisingly, we never knocked over that grill.
To fire up the charcoal, Dad used a large coffee can whose bottom and top were removed. With a traditional can opener, the kind with the pointy curved beak and the small hook that would grip the ridge at the bottom of the bottomless can, Dad poked a series of triangular openings evenly spaced around the very bottom edge of the can. His favorite can opener had a white plastic handle with a screened-on Chevrolet logo, and a red tip. The reengineered coffee can was placed on the bottom grate of the grill. Charcoal would be dumped into the can, and then was dowsed with charcoal lighter fluid. A match was tossed in, and Woof!
Reminds me of a joke – When does a cat sound like a dog? When you dowse it with lighter fluid, toss a lit match at it, and . . . . WOOF! I digress . . .
It was the carefully poked series of bottom side vents around the opening at the bottom of the can that ensured optimal airflow, once the charcoal and lighter fluid were ignited. This “Dad design” put the coals into a glowing red state quickly. With tongs held in an oven mit, he lifted the can. The briquettes found themselves suddenly without walls and tumbled, scattering evenly just inches below the cooking grate which was dropped into place.
The chicken pieces, skin on, were arranged on the grill by rank. Breasts with breasts. Thighs with thighs. Wings with wings. Drumsticks with drumsticks. The barbeque lid was lowered, and they all cooked an initial 15 minutes so as to be heated-through.
While Kraft and others may have perfected their flavor varieties in the lab, trying to home-style-ize their offerings with white lab coated motherly looking spokes-chemists, my dad was not their audience. His recipe for barbeque sauce was simple. Three equal parts Worcestershire sauce, A-1 Steak Sauce, and butter, heated in a pan until the butter was melted and ingredients thoroughly combined.
Poultry parts in formation, Dad would then begin to loooove that chicken. Dipping a pastry brush in the pan of sauce, he began caressing the top side of each piece. The sauce was painted on slowly – more like an anointing. As the elixir clung to the chicken, some dripped on the coals. Tsissssss . . . tsissss . . . tsissss. This was not a sad thing. It was an aromatic thing. A smell locked in my olfactory memory. Seven to ten minutes later, the sauce thickening, the chicken would be carefully turned over, in poultry-rank order. Dad would loooove the chicken some more, completing the base layer. Seven to ten minutes later turning the pieces again and adding another coat — coat after coat — the sauce layers would gradually thicken, turning darker and darker – until it looked like the chicken had been dropped in black ash. I can’t explain it, and probably can’t persuade the uninitiated, but the end product was absolutely, stunningly, counter-intuitively delicious.
We all have rights of passage as adolescent boys. Not uncommonly, one of these is learning to swear. My friends and I had long since passed that right, but we flew nimbly under the parental profanity radar. At home we spoke Ivory Soap. When out of the house, we were excellent swearers. As we rammed around the driveway shooting, dribbling and fouling, the color commentary was nothing less than polyphonic profanity. “He shoots! He swears!”
Dad had gone into the house to get additional barbeque provisions. As I drove the lane, my friend stepped in front of me. I slammed into him, knocking him over. He fell, then got up yelling “Charge!” and angrily shoved me. I shoved him back. He swore at me. I shoved him back again. He swore at me again.
Dad was a bit hard of hearing – wore a Miracle Ear that would whistle occasionally. Once, when we had a garage sale, a man spoke to my dad, inquiring about the price of a bauble. Dad just walked past him and went into the house. The man looked at me, confused. I was watching the money box and explained apologetically that dad was hard of hearing, pointing to my left ear. The man waited until dad came back into the garage. When dad appeared and walked past the man, the man held up the item he wanted and shouted in the direction of dad’s right ear, “How much for this!?” Startled, Dad looked at him like he was crazy. The man looked back where I was sitting, but I wasn’t there anymore.
Just as dad came out of the garage, the argument continued, and I dropped the F-bomb on my friend. Dad may have been hard of hearing, but he heard that. Didn’t like it. His eyes met mine and had me in their tractor beam. Somehow I knew we’d be talking later. Perceiving a teenage conflict had erupted, he growled “Knock it off, you two.” We knocked it off. The game ended. Cagers went home for their dinners. Dad and I talked. Then we ate some chicken.
I approached my cheater gas grill. You see, these days Folger’s coffee cans are plastic. Besides, I can’t find the can opener with the pointy curved beak and the small hook that would grip the ridge at the bottom of the can. Presuming the absence of charcoal and lighter fluid would be excused, I arranged the poultry in ranks as Dad would have, but with skin off (times change). The Worcestershire and A-1 sauces had been married with the butter – three equal parts. All had been heated until the butter was melted, and the ingredients thoroughly combined. I began to loooove that chicken and imagined back to those noisy adolescent driveway basketball games.
About 45 minutes later, I stepped into the kitchen with a platter full of ash covered chicken. Sue and especially Dianne closely scrutinized the pile of poultry parts. You could see the approval spreading gradually across their faces. Then the aroma found them. As we filled our plates at the kitchen island buffet, and then began to eat, all agreed that I had channeled Frank Heidel at the barbeque. The ash covered chicken was absolutely stunningly, counter-intuitively delicious.
In fact, that evening our conversational currents would carry us into the tropic of cancer, but we also shared lots of laughs, most at Dianne’s expense around the Scrabble table. Sue won, having used more than her fair share of triple word score squares. Dianne had a stunning misapprehended double word play. However “not” is not spelled n-t-o. Sue and I considered extending Scrabble dispensation to Dianne, but as her chemo had not begun yet we both agreed – no mercy. Much more laughter. But the best part of the evening was that we ate some chicken.
Written September 2009.