A Thanksgiving Re-Tale, Retold

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Thanksgiving 2017 has come and gone. No doubt, you’re braving local Black Friday retail merchant mosh pits, racing countless holiday screen-shoppers to grab Amazon Prime’s carefully timed, uncannily suggested, discounted cyber opportunities, setting up the Christmas tree, and spinning up your local FM easy listening station’s holiday music. All this excitement will leave you famished and you’ll stuff your lunchtime “sammiches” with L-Tryptophan-laced butterball leftovers. It is in the spirit of savory seasonal leftovers that I recycle an already several times told Thanksgiving re-tale.

A Thanksgiving Re-Tale

Thanksgiving 2009 has become the fixed north star on my timeline by which I recall, and in recalling, attempt to measure, weigh, and value God’s immeasurable, infinite and priceless faithfulness to me, and those human agencies through which He so abundantly has met so many of my otherwise unmeetable needs. At the top of my list of human agents is lovely, heroic Alice, my partner in life’s pilgrimmage. The host of names below hers is vast. As I remember you, and as you remember me, know that I love you all.

I also invite you to read an excellent Thanksgiving reflection written by my friend, Sam Frank Smith III.

Blackberries, or Bushes Afire?

 

A Charles’ Dickie Christmas R3dux

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Once again, headed to the holiday neighborhood literati bash at which all comers are to read or recite a Christmas-themed page or two, and at which the above tale has been read before. My want to be a paperback writer work product has been meager this past year. Sadly, that itself is a recurring theme. I did just happen to happen upon some interesting Icelandic lore I’ll bring along and throw down. Little known fact: all literati – aspiring and established – are intensely competitive. But, this year’s guest list is chock-full-o-newbies. So if the hostess permits, I may just recycle the above number. As most of you reading this are not on said guest list, and to prepare any unsuspecting readers (or to remind all 9 of my followers) for a close relative’s mean gift, I re-post, for a third time (I think)  A Charles’ Dickie Christmas.

A Thanksgiving Re-Tale, Retold

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As the day unfolds in your own Thanksgiving time-space continuum, and as you determinedly brace yourself for too much turkey, you may already be anticipating the butterball leftovers that will stuff your lunchtime “sammiches” tomorrow. It is in the spirit of savory seasonal leftovers that I recycle an already several times told Thanksgiving re-tale.

A Thanksgiving Re-Tale

Thanksgiving 2009 has become the fixed north star on my timeline by which I recall, and in recalling, attempt to measure, weigh, and value God’s immeasurable, infinite and priceless faithfulness to me, and those human agencies through which He so abundantly has met so many of my otherwise unmeetable needs. At the top of my list of human agents is lovely, heroic Alice, my partner in life’s pilgrimmage. The host of names below hers is vast. As I remember you, and as you remember me, know that I love you all.

I also invite you to read my friend’s — Sam Frank Smith III — excellent Thanksgiving reflections.

Blackberries, or Bushes Afire?

 

A Charles’ Dickie Christmas

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He explained he wasn’t real sure how the tradition began, but over the years, while enjoying all the commercial glam of Christmas, he and his sisters took especially great pleasure in giving one mean gift at Christmas. Dianne loathed pork rinds, and Sue’s gag reflex took over at the mere mention of mushrooms. He had a rash-causing aversion to those false turtleneck sweater fronts, known as “dickies.”

These dislikes were known by all. Each had honed his and her ability to leverage them to great effect, going to great lengths to be opportunistically mean gift givers. There was the Christmas Dianne received Li’l Abner Pork Rinds disguised as Eagle Brand Premium chips. Another year, Sue received a stunning pair of dehydrated mushroom earrings presented in a luxurious blue velvet Hartzburg’s jewelry box.

“Why, poppa! Christmas isn’t supposed to be mean!” his little cherub-daughter exclaimed. “Why did you dit a dickie?”

Hearing her question, he was transported back in time . . . .

Charles stood nervously on the edge of the Michigan playground. His dad’s company had moved him from the metropolitan prairies of Shawnee Mission, Kansas – a mid-year move that placed him in a new school setting just before the Christmas holiday break. Trailwood Elementary. Day one. Recess. Clear. Bright sun. Windy. Cold. A game of tag had sprung up, and the primary grade herd stampeded, like so many zebras running from a lion. That lion was J.R. Franks. Big, bad J.R. Franks. The BMSGOC – that’s right, the Biggest, Meanest Sixth-Grader on Campus.

Tag in the Michigan winter, in between snowfalls, when the snow and ice melted enough for the pavement to reappear was J.R.’s specialty. J.R., quite simply, was just not very nice. When he wasn’t limited to merely pelting you with snowballs, he was famous for his speed, agility and vice-grip. In dry conditions, he could catch any one, but he especially targeted schoolmates who wore turtlenecks – Michigan’s de rigueur winter wear and easily accessible even when his victims wore their winter coats. He had four main objectives when in tag-pursuit: Spot a turtleneck. Yank the turtleneck up from behind, then down suddenly over his victim’s head. Smear the hair. And, untuck the shirt’s bottom hem from slacks or skirt.

As the kids scattered, J.R. rocketed toward the Trailwood newbie, and locked onto his royal blue lycra-reinforced rib knit collar. Flat-footed, Charles was no match for J.R.’s intercept speed. Coming from out of the sun with Charles at four o’clock low, J.R. gripped the royal blue lycra-reinforced rib knit collar and yanked. Charles’ head disappeared into the fabric sleeve, and he went down like a steer hooked by a bulldogger.

Still in full stride, J.R. assessed the effect of his blitzkrieg attack. Head and face covered? “Check.” Smeared hair? “High probability.” Shirt untucked? “Negative! I say again, Negative! Wait! What’s this in my hand? Wing Commander, we have a dickie!”

Charles’ mother thought dickies were very practical Michigan winter-wear. But at that moment, as J.R. was joined by a mob of classmate zebras, all gleefully braying, “What the heck? What the heck? Can’t afford a turtleneck?!?” his faith and trust in his mother was severely shaken.

Over the years, he would warily scan the packages under the tree, wondering which of them would reveal the decoyed dickie. He was skilled at locating the soon to offend package. It was always conspicuously light, and silent when shaken. He’d only missed his mark one year, when Sue crocheted a dickie on a ceramic duck ornament hung weeks earlier on the Christmas tree.

As the family members each opened respective gifts, Sue’s mushroom earrings, Dianne’s premium pork rinds, and his camoflaged dickie were inevitably discovered, drawing predictable laughter from all.

The Christmas Charles recived the first dickie, as his stack of opened gifts grew, he slipped the dickie out of sight to be destroyed. Later, when no one was looking, he’d burn it, or toss it in the trash. Given parental mandates in force at that time, concerning the proper use of matches and other incendiaries, burning it wasn’t practical. So, into the trash it went. In fact, it wasn’t buried deeply enough in the trash and so Sue would easily retrieve it. He would receive the same dickie the next year. This time, he’d bury it at the bottom of the trash. Sue would still find it, and he would receive the same dickie again the next year. So, he would hide it in his dresser – back right corner of the sock drawer – never suspecting that his mother was a treasonous double agent. She was, after all, intimately familiar with his dresser drawers, and kept them stocked on laundry day. Next year, same dickie.

The years passed by. Family members aged and passed on. Children were born. Mean-gifting sisters became “beloved Aunties,” and the long-practiced, much refined tradition of mean gift giving seemed to wane.

To this day, however, in anticipation of and at Christmas gatherings, the younger generation still asks for and listens with rapt attention to the pork rind, mushroom and dickie lore secretly hoping at least one package will reveal the famous Christmas Dickie.

Written 12/2008.

Three Equal Parts

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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.