Some Words of Advice for Home Cooks

Ok, I’ve been steadily bashing and making fun of a certain stereotype of home and celebrity chefs, partly out of jealousy and partly because of a general lack of respect. Honestly, mostly due to jealousy. I wish I could get paid to write and cook in my $50,000 home kitchen, but I don’t. That’s ok! There is a place for me in the culinary world, it just so happens to be in an actual working kitchen, which I admit was and sometimes still is a scary place.

If you are like me and I suspect, or hope, that there are a lot of you out there, then you just want a chance to work in a professional kitchen. You are willing to work hard, listen to what you are told and be on time every single day. You have no success at finding an opportunity to do so, namely for the following reasons: You make too much money at your “real” job. It is hard to walk away from security, especially in these financially insecure times. You will most likely lose your first job for an opportunity that honestly, doesn’t pay very much, offer any benefits or guarantee anything beyond the recipe you happen to be working on. You’re also afraid of the age distribution in restaurants, namely, that most of the other employees will be younger, faster, in better shape and have more to gain than you do. You, the home cook with a real job, have much more to lose than you have to gain.

With that said, here is some advice. I skipped the whole bit about your wife or husband or significant other going ballistic and seriously contemplating sending you to a shrink. You’ll probably have to use connections to get a job. Honestly, no one is probably going to hire you off the shelf to be a prep cook (that’s where you will start, and likely remain). Is it illegal to make judgment calls based on age and fitness? You bet. Is it reality? You bet. Let’s face it, forty is pushing it to learn a new career, especially one so physically demanding.

Don’t think your connections include the owner/personal friend who owns a restaurant. Don’t put them in the awkward position of having to ask you to leave later. Trust me, this individual would rather you be a friend and loyal customer than employee. Talk about cooking, talk about restaurants, talk about travel – don’t talk to them about a job. As one chef friend told me, “My friends are more valuable than employees.”

Never pretend you know more than you do. It will become painfully honest when you are asked, for example, by a harried sous chef who is young enough to be your offspring to prepare a white sauce five minutes into your first shift. If you can’t bone a chicken, clean a fish or julienne a carrot, then say so. Someone will show you. Reluctantly at first, but they will show you.

Do no bring your own fancy chef’s knife unless it is truly beat up and used. Most cooks use their own knives, and most of them can’t afford anything more than a banged up Wusthof, which they use their entire career. I work with people whose knives are worn down so much from use and sharpening that they barely resemble the original blade.

Ask the chef how you should dress and be clear of your title. Be aware of the limitations of your title. A kitchen is much like the military with a clear chain of command. Don’t overstep your bounds and strive to learn as much as you can.

Provided you get the job, of course. Making it through the interview will be an odd experience, mostly devoid of the normal chit chat. The chef probably decided if he or she was going to hire you when they walked through the door. All you can do is mess up. Pretending that you cooked in Italy (but you just don’t remember the name of the restaurant) when you really just travelled through will not go over well. Again, be honest with what you can and cannot do. Don’t give the impression that you can do nothing, but that is better than claiming you were the Assistant to an Award-Winning Michelin Star Adorned Chef, whose name you have once again forgotten. Give your chef every chance to help you succeed, which all chefs want to do. Lying is counterproductive.

If you get the job, don’t dress like a chef. If you are not provided a uniform or instructed on what to wear, ask the chef. Default clothing for newbies are tough but comfortable black pants and a dark shirt you aren’t afraid to ruin and above all, comfortable, breathable shoes. You’re going to get foot rot anyway, just prolong it as long as you can.

Don’t appear too afraid of the ovens. It’s natural to flinch away from something that is around 500 degrees and is being opened about a thousand times a night. I know I heard the timer buzzing in my sleep. You will get burned a few times. It’s ok. Make sure you use dry rags every single time you head for the oven or you’ll end up blistered and in agony three steps from your destination, forcing you to drop the pan with the day’s featured item right in front of an already exasperated sous chef.

Regardless of who hired you, the sous chef is your boss. Hell, everyone is your boss. The dishwashers will make fun of you. The wait staff will yell at you. If you’re not careful the person in charge of cleaning will have you mopping the floors mid-shift. You’re going to have to sort through who does what, when and for whom quickly.

Kitchens are like battlefields. Every square inch of real estate is claimed by someone, even the tiny workspace that you will be assigned to. Cooks are by nature aggressive, abrasive, combative, jealous, secretive and suffer madly from kleptomania. Leave your knife at your station – it will vanish. Go yelling around the kitchen for it – you’ll never find it again. Ignore that it’s gone, pick up one of the hundreds of white-handled serrated knives, never say a word and it will be back where you left it later.

Work hard, keep your head down, and above all else, don’t lose your cool. Those guys and girls jockeying you around? They were treated the same way, only worse. Much like the coal mining days of not that long ago, hazing is expected and tolerated. No matter where you’ve came from or how many board of director meetings you have chaired, your coworkers will only respect what you’ve done today. Tomorrow you will start all over again.

Is it worth it? For me, it was and still is. I was treated very well, as that is the nature of our kitchen, but don’t expect that everywhere.

So, if you want to be a cook (I can’t help you with the chef part), then lace up your black shoes, sharpen your knife and prepare for war. That’s what you are in for.

So, You Think You Should Be A Chef?

 

Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.

You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams and Sonoma apron with your initials monogrammed on the front, a white clean towel from Crate and Barrel carelessly thrown over your shoulder you start to think some very dangerous thoughts. After all, doesn’t everyone love the roast organic whole chicken from Whole Foods that you carefully brined overnight and roasted in one of your dual Viking Ovens while reading “Cooking with Bobby Flay” with a perfect glass of Portuguese Tempranillo which has been decanted in a crystal vessel imported from France. You continue to muse over the possibilities while shining the stainless steel, marble and granite that adorns your kitchen. Normally the Hispanic help does this, but you feel like working tonight and he’s been a little absent lately. He was probably deported.

Then you come up with the following: “I SHOULD be a chef!”

Everyone says so, even your Mom. You look good on camera, can carry on a conversation of the pros of imported versus domesticated truffles with the smugness of one who lives for the next new Food Network show and religiously studies the “Washington Post” food section.

You’ve seen the idiots on T.V., who you vaingloriously emulate while shopping in the natural foods store. How hard could it be? You’re well-travelled, been to Spain, Italy and France and take great pride in knowing who the chef is in all the high-end restaurants that you’ve dined in. Only one other person that you know of has been to more of Guy Fieri’s DDD recommendations. You continue to muse away in your kitchen, running your fingers over the $400 cutting board, picked up in Vietnam (nobody goes to Hawaii anymore, you pronounced just hours ago) and had shipped back to your house.

It’s time for a mid-life change anyway, right? You eagerly open up your IPAD and do a quick search for “Executive Chef.” Hmmmmm. “Minimum fifteen years or kitchen experience, culinary degree preferred, experience running your own gourmet farm to table menu, the ability to motivate others with your own culinary creations and full fiscal responsibility for a medium sized restaurant in need of creative menu adaptations.”

You read it again. It’s a restaurant that you’re familiar with and, wonder of wonders, didn’t you meet the owner’s wife or mistress or something at a food bloggers “Food and Wine of the World” with all proceeds going to save the Ethiopian Puppies? Or maybe it was Himalayan Tiger Awareness. At any rate, you drift off to sleep with visions of perfectly plated roast duck and pork skin croutons dancing in your head.

You make some phone calls the next morning and after pulling some strings and political favors and promising that you would indeed make your famous bacon-banana-chocolate cupcakes with raspberry icing, you get through to the restaurant owner.

“Hello.” The voice on the phone sounds distracted, irritated. You introduce yourself hurriedly, somehow suddenly afraid. “Chef position? Yes, we have a chef position we are seeking to fill. What is your experience? Who are your references?” You explain that you have travelled extensively, attended multiple cooking events and host a wildly successful series of pro-bono dinners for charity. The voice on the phone sounds bored. “You’ve done what?” You decide a few name drops are in order. Now the voice seems irritable. “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for someone with experience. Have you EVER worked a line?” That seems like a reasonable request. The line, you distinctly remember, is something that Anthony Bourdain, that smartass, used to work.

“Yes.” You answer confidently. “Ten years sauté, five in menu design, tasting and expediting.” Even as the lie rolls of your tongue your thinking of Miguel, your lawn guy who has been deported. Didn’t he work in a kitchen now? How hard could it be?

The next thing you know you’re headed down to a local restaurant for an interview and a food demonstration. You load your Mercedes SUV with your best knife, designer towels and at last though, throw in a jar of truffles and some fresh rosemary picked from the bush outside your study.

You arrive at the destination, which is a little run-down, in your suddenly expert opinion, and find the kitchen in an uproar. It’s nothing like you imagined. Flames seem to be everywhere, with wait staff impatiently yelling at the cooks in a language you can’t even comprehend. It seems to be a mix of Spanish, English and restaurant jargon peppered with obscenities. You rather timidly wave to Manuel, who is manning what appears to have once been a grill, now transformed into a carbon-covered, greasy, smoking, filthy creature that you wouldn’t allow on your street. A runner passes you with a cigarette still clenched in her teeth and swears at you to move, PLEASE!

You can’t find the owner, or anyone else that seems to be in charge, except for the young, white, sweaty guy yelling orders across a stack of plates while clutching a fistful of white tickets. As you approach he screams something intelligible at a heavily tattooed Hispanic girl sporting giant biceps who appears to be chopping a whole animal.

Nervous now, you stand awkwardly a few feet away from the sweaty white guy, feeling a little ridiculous in your tie and favorite apron and carrying your Masakage Hikari Chef knife, purchased on your last trip to Tokyo.

“Whatdoyouwant?” You realize the sweaty white guy is talking to you while you were staring at the new and old burns, scars and tattoos that adorn his forearms. “I’m looking for the owner,” you say quickly, your voice breaking a bit. The cook replies that the owner isn’t there and grabs a stack of plates from a cart. Eager to help, or at least not flee, you follow suit and grab a similar stack of plates. You scream in pain and instantly drop the plates, which shatter in a deafening thunder on the grimy tile floor. Everyone cheers while you stare at your burned hand in disbelief. How the hell did he pick those up like that?

The cook shakes his head and keeps going, barking orders as he goes. He puts down the stack of plates, pulls a dirty jacket off a rack on the wall and motions for you to follow. By the time you get to the door, he has lit a cigarette and is rattling off what appears to be orders on his phone. He plants his bony ass on an upended bucket outside the kitchen door and takes a long, grateful drag on his cigarette. Squinting through the smoke, you feel that he is sizing you up or something. “So, you want to be the chef?”

You have never been so grateful to be back in the safety of your car. This story, with a few tweaks, of course, will be great at the next charity dinner. You’ll have to make sure and tell all of the owner’s friends that he sold the restaurant to some Hispanic guy.

Back on the line, Manuel picks up the Masakagi knife, looks it over curiously and turns to the other cooks. “Cuya consolador es esto?” While the other cooks, including the heavily muscled girl with the leg of lamb, which is now separated into recognizable cuts, howl with laughter, he contemptibly tosses the knife in the sink. He picks up his white handled serrated knife and proceeds breaking down a pork roast for house made enchiladas while mentally estimating the cost per serving. It’s tough being the owner.

 

Celebrity Chef???

As I slog my way up the mountain towards the restaurant where I work, I realize in the blinding snow that I have zigged when I should have zagged and am no longer on the right road. I peer out the window for a moment, a little exasperated, wondering how in the world that the road was suddenly flat. It’s nearly a 2500 foot climb up the mountain to the restaurant, a veritable yawn in the minds of most mountaineers and climbers, but it’s no fun when you can’t see. I go a few more feet, then stop. I started to instinctively pull over, but I realized the futility of that particular endeavor. Pull over where? I realize what I’ve done pretty quickly, in a hard turn I had just simply kept going straight into a neighbors drive.

I retraced my steps and got back into the truck, finding my way along by the interior lights. I’d left my lights on inside the cab and slammed the door behind me, shutting out the howl of the wind. I wonder, and not for the first time, “What on earth am I doing here? At 5:00 a.m., wheeling through the snow on the eve of April Fool’s Day to a dark kitchen newly remodeled and a yet-to-be-determined number of hungry guests who most likely will all be demanding the Southern Special, which is waffles with buttermilk and soy marinated chicken which is dipped in pancake batter, rolled in panko and then quickly deep fried. No wonder they like it so much. I do too, one of the perks of the trade, but one that you can rarely indulge in. Despite what they tell you, no one likes a fat cook.

Unless it was the early years of the Food Network, of course, when Chefs like Emeril and Mario were just starting their television careers. They captivated audiences by their antics on stage on the screen. Nothing seemed to be scripted or even planned. I believe that I remember reading somewhere that Mario once set himself on fire on a set and they just rolled the camera. He finished what he was doing and then put himself out with all of the alarm of a man feeding his cat. Then along came Giada, sporting major cleavage and a Joker smile that wrapped around her head like a guilty pez dispenser. Then Food Network gave us Anthony Bourdain, who was adored by every starving cook on the planet and greatly confused nearly everyone else outside of the cooking world. But, he did something that Emeril and Mario did not – he made cooking cool. His unsympathetic, unglamorous attitude in the kitchen and constant sarcasm to nearly all things commercial while railing against established authority made all of us nearly green with envy.

Even now, as I slog my way up the mountain in the snow, I think of what Bourdain did and did not accomplish in those early days. He did take the FN in a new direction. He did attract thousands, perhaps millions of people to the channel with his brutal honesty and rock star mentality. He did cause chaos in the binding world as they struggled to keep up as millions of people flocked to buy his books.

What he didn’t do was bond well with the new powers that be at FN. They recognized, and smartly so, that his on and off-screen antics and tendency to tell things exactly the way he felt they were had no place in niche market that could be pushed mainstream with the right marketing strategy.

So, it began. The glamorization of a life spent in a kitchen, which seemed to consist more of driving around in classic muscle cars with spikey hair goofing on people’s restaurants than cooking. Giada was showing more cleavage than ever, not that anyone minded, and Paula Deen took the center stage, along with the Martha Stewart looking and acting Sandra Lee, whom I’ve always confused with a truly terrible frozen cake. Beauty started taking center stage and real cooks started realizing, “Hey, these guys aren’t COOKING anymore!” It’s still about food, I guess, but something went missing.
Then came the rise and continued arc of this new thing, a new actor on the stage set by money and market capitalization. The “CELEBRITY CHEF!” The first of such creatures were almost embarrassed to be on film, embarrassed to have everyone screaming their name after live cooking demonstrations that rivaled rock concerts. They had after all, clawed their way up through the ranks within kitchens, most with dubious if not outright sketchy backgrounds and were most definitely not schooled on how to behave on or off the camera.

That wasn’t enough for the FN either. Mainstream still wasn’t there. The show was attracting more and more cooks who could identify with the people they saw on screen, but it was rapidly becoming a cult phenomenon, which the executives could not bear. Not with the millions of people out there just waiting to scarf up high-dollar cooking appliances and decorate their million dollar condos with 50,000 dollars in high end kitchen equipment that they would neither use nor aspire to use. THAT was who the FN was after.

So, they created a superstar. Their very own Chefs. Chefs, it seems, now grow on chef trees out in California somewhere, or maybe in the basement of the FN executives’ house, watered with champagne and ruby lips, cultivated with perfect hair and smiles and dressed in tailored Chefs Whites. Along the way, the very definition of the title “Chef” was corrupted. It came to represent anyone who wanted to call themselves such, no matter what their background was or how fuzzy their resume, printed, of course, on linen paper.

A Chef, by definition, is: “A skilled cook who manages a full kitchen.” Earliest recorded use of the term is in 1840, by of course, the French. They generally aren’t all that good-looking, usually complete with nervous tics, superstitions, older, wrinkled and wise beyond what you think.

A Celebrity Chef, however, is someone, anyone, who can look good on camera while talking smoothly. It doesn’t matter if they can actually cook or not, these new so-called Celebrity Chefs.

As I enter my kitchen that morning, I am thankful to be reporting in to an actual Chef, one who runs the kitchen, one who can chop, julienne, flavor, taste, fire, hire and make the majority of the decisions for me. I don’t have to worry about my lack of a six-pack or my hair. I don’t have to wear designer clothes or have limos pick me up in Eggleston, VA to shuttle me to my magazine shoot while my flunkies, or even better yet, someone else’s flunkies do my work for me. No, I’m happy to do my job, identify with the items that I prepare, and be grateful for the opportunity to get to cook for money. Not a lot of money either. I do it for the challenge, for the food, for the experience and for myself.

If I never have to do a photoshoot for a non-stick, self-sharpening, never-needs-cleaning CHEFS KNIFE that doubles as an IPOD, I’ll be even happier. But thanks, to everyone who has called me Chef Ron. I’ll take the compliment and remember that a cook is only as good as his Chef.

A Trip and a Compliment

IMG_0322[1]I was introduced to some new people in a local restaurant just the other day. It was a glorious day, in my opinion. It was cold and blustery, and pouring rain, but all things considered, it was still a great day. I was taking care of my fifteen month old son, Nolan. We were doing daddy-son stuff since Mommy was gone, such as eating pancetta with olives and sourdough bread straight out of the fridge, raw cookie dough from the freezer and listening to some new country on Pandora. All in all, a great day. Since I had been up since five and cooked in the restaurant most of the day, I decided it was ok to forego cooking him dinner, especially since the olives and pancetta were giving him some amazing farts and take him out to a local little joint for a cheeseburger and some ice cream.

He drove. Or at least he was relatively certain that he did. Yeah, I know, I’m going to get some haters out there for this, but I broke the law and let him ride in my lap and steer. Yes, it’s against the law. I made a conscious decision to do that and do you know why? The earliest memories that I have are riding around in my Mom’s open top CJ-5 Jeep during the early summer months as she sang along to Alabama’s “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler” and “Copperhead Road” and “A Country Boy Will Survive.” Those were some truly great times.

I’d like for Nolan to have those distant memories of taking a car ride every once in a while, sitting on his Mom’s lap, or mine, as we drive the four miles on back roads to a couple of our favorite restaurants. Although we live in what most, including my wife, consider to be the sticks, we are lucky in that I am only a few miles from work at what is one of the most beautiful venues in the world, where I have been blessed with a job as a professional cook. We are also only four miles from one our favorite restaurants, six to another and about twelve to another. The Palisades, The Bank Food and Drink, Mountain Lake Lodge and Mickey’s Seventh are all within a few miles of where we live!

Let’s leave Nolan driving for the moment, while he rolls the window up and down, turns the cruise on and off and in general has a great time steering with his feet as the scenery rolls by in a way that he has never experienced before. There is a new country song playing on the radio that sounds a lot like rap, but it’s a great song. Nolan is happy with it and I like the crossover sound of the twang and beat.

Let’s fly out the window, into the rain and mist that give the Great Smoky Mountains their name. Let’s head out Spruce Run Road and turn left on Rt. 469 West, which leads into West Virginia and points beyond. Right UP the Mountain we travel, over beautiful waterfalls and no doubt a black bear or two, snuffling around on the first warm day in a long time, seeking out wild ramps, leeks and other leafy items to replenish their bodies stores of essential vitamins and nutrients after their long sleep. We most likely also pass a deer or twenty, wild turkey brooding in the rain, and as we ascend the air becomes colder and the rain turns to snow near the frost line around 2,500 feet. As we go up, we must have also gone back in time, for the Black Ford that Nolan thinks he is driving is here slogging up the mountain at a scant five or ten miles an hour. Visibility is near zero as we descend into the cab with the sleep deprived driver.

The driver is me, the author. I’d left for my breakfast shift earlier than usual, awakened by some sound or the pressure in my eardrums as my head cold gets worse. I didn’t know it then, but I was headed towards a rough shift and one of the greatest compliments of my life. I had a LOT of people staying at the Lodge and I didn’t know it. The snow storm was so bad I would get out of the truck and walk ahead to make sure that I was still in the road, bang the ice of my wipers and drive a little more.

I had no preparation done for breakfast – no biscuits made, no potatoes cut, no oats soaking, no bacon thawed, no fruit cut and no batters prepared. I wasn’t worried, in this storm, long after “Spring” had supposedly sprung – I didn’t think that anyone would be ready to eat breakfast.

I was wrong. There had been a wedding and there were a ton of guests awaiting breakfast, hungry and hungover and eager to continue the debauchery of the former night beginning with Mimosas, Bloody Mary’s and all the biscuits and gravy they could possibly stuff into their faces. I had a new kitchen I’d never cooked in before and no prep work completed. So began my shift.

I honestly don’t know how many breakfasts that I prepared that morning, or how many biscuits I made or how many mistakes I could have or did make. All I know is that it was suddenly 10:30 a.m. and the restaurant was closed until lunch, I was drenched in sweat and so exhausted I was swaying a bit. My ears still hadn’t readjusted to the change in altitude due to the head cold and everything sounded as if I were in a barrel. One of the wait staff high-fived me and we had a group hug as I thanked the staff for their help and celebrated the new menu and kitchen with coffee, tea and the rest of the pancake batter, cooked on the new grill.Menu

Here was my greatest compliment: Chef came into the kitchen with a new employee in tow, and introduced me as Ron, his Breakfast Chef. The enormity of what he said sank in for a moment, then I became very humbled by his gratitude. I didn’t feel like I had done anything that anyone else couldn’t or wouldn’t do, which is just what I was hired to do. But, I’m not a Chef. Not in the classic sense of the term. A chef is a leader of the kitchen, responsible for EVERYTHING in the restaurant. A chef must be able to reproduce dishes flawlessly, while instructing others and motivating them to accomplish a feat akin to an orchestra crossed with a demolition crew tearing down a bridge.

Later that day, I was introduced to the people in another restaurant after Nolan safely drove us there and we were feasting on Cheeseburgers, ice cream and carrot cake. I was introduced to the couple as “Chef Ron.”

But I was too deliriously tired and happy to correct them.

IMG_0329[1]

 

Appetite for Destruction

Authors Note: The following is an excerpt from a larger body of work written largely from my own experiences, but like all authors I reserve the right to change names to protect the guilty, seasons to reflect my mood and religions as it suits me. I generally leave politics out of everything. All situations similar to those experienced by anyone else are not my fault!

I have never been one to be defined, at any point really in my life, unlike so many of my own generation, by the music that I listened to. The main reason is that music, unlike books, was relatively rare in our house. My parents didn’t own a massive record collection, didn’t have music happy hour or family time and my Dad flatly refused to listen to the radio in the car, like most normal people do, as that interfered with his driving and he couldn’t hear the engine properly over the sound of the radio. So, as a result I never became enamored by the sounds of my generation of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s as so many others did.

But during the summer of 1990, the album was everywhere. It defined us. We identified with it, with the screaming lyrics and the intensity, frustrations of corporate marketing and Hollywood’s definition of who we were, those lost souls from the end of what would be later coined as the x-generation. We were torn between mullets and camo hats, Rambo style sleeveless shirts and the inevitable no-sock, white sport jacket by Sonny Crockett. We were enticed by the Mambo No. Five, but clung to the roots of our land and heritage as tenaciously as possible.

Unfortunately, this was a time of turmoil and strife within the coal fields of Virginia and the surrounding states. The traditional ways of life were rapidly disappearing right before our eyes. Jobs were drying up faster than we could scrap up ways to make up money somewhere else. Many turned to drugs – something I steered mostly clear of throughout my life, recognizing that there was no escape from the path before me without turning my back on what others were embracing.

One particular morning is forever imprinted on my mind. I had graduated from high school and was accepted into the Air Force Academy, Virginia Tech, UVA and King College. My dream, my childhood dream and reason for most things I did was to become a fighter pilot in the USAF. I was too young to enter the academy and so had agreed to go to King College instead of the other schools of choice. It was closer to home and my girlfriend at the time lived not far away.

That morning, in the dew of the backyard near my dad’s workshop, I had disassembled a race bike that I had found in a nearby town, hopelessly crashed and in pieces in a crate. The birds sang, I was deeply tanned already from all the time spent in the gardens, working construction and simply being constantly outside. My dad had sort of given me a car, one that I hated, but ran and got really good gas mileage, which wasn’t much of a concern in 1990. “Sweet Child Of Mine” was playing on the radio that morning and the sun was already evaporating the mist. My wrenches spun in the early morning and my siblings wandered out to see what I was doing. My baby sister, forever at that time of her life in rollerblades, skated up to say hello. She should have been barely walking but instead had leapfrogged all the way to wheels on her feet.

I knew I could turn a profit on the bike I was rebuilding, I had races scheduled all summer, thirty-five yards to mow, a girlfriend a few towns over, plenty of walking around money and the world in my pocket. All I had to do was phone in a semester at King and theoretically I would be bombing our poverty stricken enemies from the relative safety of the cockpit of an F-16, to me the sexiest of planes. I really thought I would be running dogfighting missions across Southeast Asia, but my imagination often supplanted reality.

The reality was, I went to King, experienced terrible cafeteria food for a few months, managed to beat my parents off the campus when they dropped me off, sans car as I had totaled it over the summer and proceeded to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted during my first moments of total freedom.

The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted. All my life, my parents had encouraged, nay, insisted, that I go to college. Having never went to college themselves, they really didn’t understand the actual benefits, the money involved or what impact it would really have on a relatively sheltered mountain boy to be abandoned on a campus full of Navy Blue Jacketed white boys and girls still wearing bobby socks and parking their BMW’s in the school “patched” parking lot.

I played “Welcome to the Jungle” and “My Michelle” on a never ending loop in my dorm room, enraging the other students. Nights could be found with my head under a pillow and “Paradise City” blasting in my ears as Bobby and Cody discovered that they were gay next door. Was that the ultimate rebellion? I settled for my stand against authority “Animal House” style: Ron Matney “Has no GPA.”

Did I understand the ramifications of my rebellion against nothing? Not really. I simply went back home, to a world I understood and started over. I went back to my old job with my uncle, attended community college and vaguely pursued my dream of being a pilot. I kept myself in unbelievable shape, something not hard to do with the work I was performing. I practiced exams and study guides until I knew them by heart.

I was again accepted into Virginia Tech in 1994. Thrilled beyond belief, my parents readied me for my second excursion into a larger world, my being better prepared, they hoped. What did I do that summer? I married a local girl who refused to leave her parent’s last wedding gift – a single-wide house trailer behind their house. Why? I have no idea. Self-destruction, I suppose. An excuse for not succeeding in a larger world. My little world was strategically placed in case of failure. Intentionally, no. Subconsciously, I think it was a safety net.

One I didn’t need, not that time. I did well at VT, working in mining on the weekends in WV and maintaining a grueling study/workout/work regime that may have in the beginning embarrassed a Navy SEAL. I was determined now to be a pilot. I finished my degree with my dream almost within my grasp when my future ex-wife, demanded, no insisted, no, screamed that we must return to her mommy and church where she could go to church instead of hell, which she was certain existed just east of Blacksburg and extended all the way to the center of the earth.

We did return, I worked as a mine foreman and hated every minute of my existence. I would get phone calls from students who were travelling the world, going on perpetual vacations and having what seemed to me a euphoric existence. I fought black lung and had knee and ankle surgery. They played on a beach in Thailand – I had my ankle reconstructed. They worked as bartenders and lived for schwag – I was trying to make as much money as I could.

With what most considered to be a certain future and a great life, I walked again. Left my wife and her bubble and entered graduate school at VT, where I fought once again with authority over my responsibilities as a PhD student. I lasted exactly one semester. Undeterred, I was accepted into RU’s graduate program, where I was a perfect fit. After graduation I was offered several jobs, good ones with high pay – I went to the beach for the summer. I was accepted into the PhD program in Geological Engineering at VT – I crashed my car and broke 27 bones.

My Dad was diagnosed with a terminal liver disease about that time. I was offered a full position with the NASA group studying the Mars mission in Reno, NV. I moved to Reno, once again clashed with authority, decided there was too much drama and left.

Back in mining in WV once again, I locked horns with my bosses once more, fighting them over every slip in safety regulations, dreading the day when I would be responsible for someone dying somehow on the longwall, one of the most dangerous places on this earth. The strain broke me and I ended up in D.C., dating a want-to-be-but-never-will-be model who had followed me around like a lost dog for years. After so much drama that my nervous system was shot, I started drinking heavily and broke up with her.

I met my wife in D.C. and the self-destruction lessened on the surface and increased with depth. I worked hard, made her proud, was promoted and given a huge office. I hated the city with all my heart. I threw away that opportunity and we moved to Blacksburg, VA where I worked for a smaller office and was largely bored. I left the safety of that firm for another, then another as I sought something, something to fill a space emptied by a lack of, what, exactly? I didn’t know. There was just no challenge, no excitement and I was horribly bored and stressed at the same time. My drinking escalated by that point enough to scare my wife.

During the economic crash of 2006-2009, I had largely escaped intact due to my charisma and work ethic and mostly likeable personality. No one saw the real me behind the false face I projected – nobody saw the addict, the self-destructive tendencies, the old injuries and scars of so many years of living so close to the edge. I lost my job in 2009, not from any fault of my own for the first time, but from the firm downsizing. I just became a number in an equation that was failing.

After a period of wallowing in self-guilt and pity, I snapped out of it long enough to find another job, not one that I wanted or liked, but it was safe. My wife worked with the firm and was invaluable to them – they wanted to keep her at all costs, even if it meant hiring her largely overweight, rather flaky husband with a dubious resume and strange background.

After about a year, I became so frustrated and bored that I was considering packing our things and leaving. We talked about it, but I didn’t know what to do. My drinking escalated.

By this point, everyone knew I had a problem. Most probably knew what it was. I didn’t. I once again pursued something else, a passion that I have always had for teaching, studying for a M.S. in teaching. I was wildly successful as a student, at the top of my class every semester. At this point, my drinking had consumed my life.

The School Board realized something was wrong. Tasked with the safety of the children and placement of teachers in schools, they made the decision to expel me from the program, the first of such in years. I fought it and was re-admitted, only to be asked to leave once more.

Around this time, my wife became pregnant. We were thrilled beyond belief and my drinking lessened. As the time period for his entrance into the world came closer, I became more and more self-destructive, drinking heavily most of the time.

Impaled on a spear of guilt and self-immolation, I crashed and burned. Nearly dead, my wife admitted me into the hospital for my second attempt at monitored rehabilitation. It worked, for about three months. I started hiding alcohol again and becoming ever more vague about my whereabouts, what I was doing and the depth of my sickness. My wife panicked one day, fearing for my safety as well as hers and helped me admit myself into rehab. She and my team of doctors and counselors saved my life that day, once again.

Throughout all this time, food remained and continues to be a solace, almost an embrace, a place where I can reconnect with my childhood and those innocent days of the season, each with their unique flavors and cooking methods. From canning to grilling, storage and ripening, time spent in the kitchen became irreplaceable. No matter how hungover, how sick, how broken or how depressed – a day in the kitchen creating dishes brought me crashing back to reality, where I would often curse my addiction and the wasted time spent fighting against authority of any kind.

Today, things are quite different. I am treating each day as an opportunity, being honest with my wife and it’s been seven months since I’ve had a drink of any kind. The only job that I could get after all of that nonsense was as a line cook at a local restaurant and resort. I work hard, go home every day and thank God for my chance to be with my family, sober and clear-headed for the first time in a very long time.

Like most of my generation, I have come to peace with my life and who I am, but some spring mornings I can still hear the gripping notes and polarizing lyrics of “Appetite for Destruction.” They fade now into the shadows as I play with my son and hug my wife thank God for these moments of peace in my life.

A Baby’s Opinion of Charlottesville

Just so every one knows, I was born in Roanoke and have spent most of my life when I’m not traveling in the New River Valley near Virginia Tech. So my parents, diehard Hokie fans, were more than a little surprised when I insisted that we go to Charlottesville, VA for a couple of days. I was getting irritated with Mom and Dad – normally I get to go everywhere all the time but the weather has been nasty and cold and there’s all this white stuff outside that’s called “snow.” I don’t know if you guys have seen it, but so far I’m not a huge fan. Sliding up and down a hill in a box isn’t a whole lot of fun with this snow stuff in your face. Mommy’s car has been buried for a long time now and here’s what I think of snow:

snow2_02

IMG_0207

So, I drug out my laptop, phone and some travel and food books one morning and more accurately assessed our situation. I wanted to go somewhere warm, like Florida or Costa Rica or Mexico…but overhearing my parents talk about this thing called “Money,” which I don’t have, I decided to keep us local.IMG_0269

Of course, research is long, hot, dirty work, especially when your parents keep you caged in the kitchen! It is my favorite room, as Mom and Dad are always in there and that’s where all the food is, but, I can climb stairs, run and help with the fire! I have to get a drink of OJ to clear my head.

IMG_0277

Man, I like OJ. The only thing better are kiwis, or maybe chocolate milk. I’m going to have a talk with Dad – he has a great recipe for hot chocolate from my Aunt Vickie that I really like, but he hardly ever makes it. I check to make sure that Hooville has plenty of bakeries and little shops and they do! I also research some other restaurants and route and I know my Mom likes to visit wineries, so I leave my computer open and books out while I take a nap. I may not be able to talk yet, but I can communicate! Throwing things helps too.

IMG_0263

So, we set sail. I have a new carseat so I can help better with driving and Mom consults this thing that Dad scornfully calls a “Dumb Phone.” I don’t know what he means by that, I think the phone is pretty smart, so I call it “SmartPhone.” He fusses but she gets directions and all the restaurant reviews I’ve sent her immediately.

IMG_0213

IMG_0214

Mom and Dad look and look for the restaurant in Lexington, VA but they can’t find it. I tell them it’s in the YMCA building, but they won’t listen to me so I drink some juice and yell directions at them. I even tried throwing some of my organic cheddar bunnies at them and they still don’t get it. Wait, Parents! We’re driving right by it…Arrrg. We finally found it and Dad was so happy.

IMG_0225

Dad orders a Sweet Potato and Bean cheeseburger and Mom get’s the chef’s take on a Cuban Sandwich, except it’s in a burrito!

IMG_0229

Dad was thrilled with the changing menu and food options that were already prepped and ready in the chiller. He kept saying things and Mom kept telling him it would be my first word, but I know better than to say that word. Dad told me to wait until I was with Nana to say it. I don’t know why.

IMG_0215

IMG_0227

For dinner we went to some place called Whiskey Jar and they were supposed to have music but they didn’t play until after my bedtime. Man, I wanted to dance! Their burgers were good and the potato biscuits and hush puppies were AWESOME!! They also had lots of something called whisky, which apparently my parents used to like but don’t anymore since I’ve been born. Another question to ask them later.

IMG_0249

IMG_0240

After dinner we walk around but it is COLD! We get some free muffins and a cookie. I remind Dad why we shouldn’t have gotten this hotel the next morning, and then we split for some better food. Pancakes for me and Dad, Salsa Verde breakfast from The Bluegrass Trail and then we swung by Pippin Hill Vineyard for an AMAZING Lunch. I told Mom and Dad we would love this place. There was lots of room for me to run around, nice people to talk to and lots of stuff to put in the floor where it belongs. Whew. It’s hard to be a writer and a baby, so it’s off to bed with me!!! Some nice warm milk, and I’m going to dream of free muffins. Yummmm.

IMG_0233 IMG_0236

IMG_0252 IMG_0255 IMG_0257 IMG_0258 IMG_0259

Venison Stew

First and foremost, I’ve never been much of a hunter. I’ve been inspired to do more of it with the intent of providing better for my family, but my wife isn’t a big fan of venison. She says that her early observations of deer hunters in their native element, which namely consists of driving around in a slightly to highly modified pickup truck (cool) with a deer that has been slaughtered, usually at relatively close range with a rifle caliber with the knockdown ability of a cruise missile riding in the bed of the truck (not cool) until it goes bad in the late fall sun.

With that thought in mind, I scouted for deer very carefully this year. I prefer an animal that has lived relatively stress free, without wild dogs or coyotes chasing him, away from highways and all the pollutants that are put into the environment and preferably existing on natural browse and mast rather than soy and corn.

We had two such animals on our property. Part of a larger herd, the two young male deer had spent the two years of their life relatively hidden in a small corner of our property with their mother, an intelligent animal who knew enough to stay away from roads, fields and other hazardous places. She is a little old, with some gray on her muzzle and a very slight limp, likely from not quite clearing a fence in her younger years.

Every two to four years she has a set of twins like clockwork and works very diligently raising them until she instinctively feels it is time for them to leave and join the main herd. She is nature personified. This year, perhaps feeling a little miffed that the three of them spent most of their summer in my garden, munching on my lettuce, carrots, early kale, and anything else they so pleased, I decided to finish my freezer with two eighty pound two year old deer.

That was all well and good, except Laura was about as thrilled as if I had offered Bambi himself to her on a platter. There was much mumbling about “redneck husbands” and “silliness” and “I DON’T LIKE VENISON.” I thought that, as with nearly everything else within reason, that once Laura had venison that she would like it – that is usually what happens with her. She wasn’t a big fan of sushi when we started dating, nor did she care very much for anything raw. That opinion didn’t last very long as we immersed ourselves in different food and spices, raw fish and finer cuts of beef along with the “Nasty Bits” to some degree.

With all this in mind, I carefully staked out their normal grazing route and waited until the right weather rolled around to allow them to hang for a few days after the initial dressing so the meat could have time to get accustomed to its new state of being and become more palatable and tender. The day finally arrived.

Over my wife’s protests, I carefully loaded the custom .270 given to me by my father with ammunition he loaded by hand. When I was a kid, he would dole out one shell for me to hunt with, and the requirement was that I have a game animal to account for my shot, or a good reason for why I missed. I think that’s ultimately why I became an ok shot when hunting – I’ll wait a long time for that perfect shot and I rarely miss. I’ve never in my life had an animal run away wounded. I honestly can’t stand the thoughts of that happening. It happened to me once when I was a kid and I was mortally horrified.

As usual, my field of vision began to narrow down and I watched the young buck carefully as he navigated his way through the branches and mostly second growth underbrush. There was only one spot to take him that was clear of debris and offered an unobstructed shot, one that I had identified earlier in the week.

He and his family were intent on last year’s acorn mast, and were working their way through old apples from the trees and other tasty deer goodness. I watched the sun recede into the west as our world spun at its dizzying rate and became engrossed in the flight of a few migratory birds, bound for somewhere warmer, no doubt. I waited – and saw the shot. My finger tightened slowly on the trigger as I scoped the head area, looking for a target. I found it. A small patch of white air just below his left ear. The rifle shot echoed across the valley for a moment and I ejected the spent cartridge, picking it up without thinking, an ingrained habit from my childhood. I never stopped glassing the deer and as I returned to the field of view, I watched him run away.

What?? How on earth was he running? I retraced the shot in my mind and didn’t think there was any way that I could have missed. Not at that distance, not with this rifle, no way. Fearful that I had wounded him, I watched as he paused before exiting through a few strands of barb wire and vanished into the gloom of the impending sunset.

Handgun ready, I tracked him as far as I could that night by a flickering headlamp (stupid batteries), imagining that I was following a blood trail. I don’t think I ever was. When I examined the area the next morning in the light a new day, I found a branch shot cleanly in two. The branch saved Spot’s life that night.

But not the next.

Snow Days!

There is something insanely exhilarating about a snow day. Not just for children, who kind of expect such things to happen, but for adults especially. We don’t have to go anywhere, worry about anything and we can busy ourselves with our favorite activities, inside or out. It’s this notion of play that gets adults and children alike so excited about snow days. I remember as a kid literally leaping for joy over a major snow event. Bear in mind that back then, in the stone ages (I once innocently asked my Dad if he remembered the dinosaurs – my Mom roared with laughter, Dad just looked annoyed until he seized the moment and told me all about the dinosaurs and how they would hunt them when he was a little boy. I was enthralled.) Weather forecasts were rarely right. I guess it’s kind of like today, we just weren’t overloaded with news, facebook, twitter, texts and alerts every time a butterfly sneezed in Hong Kong.

For me, the biggest emotional trigger that I have is the desire to cook. Whenever we were not at school due to snow, my Mom would literally cook all day long. Huge breakfasts with eggs, sausage, gravy and cat-head biscuits. A mid-morning snack after we’d romped in the snow all morning of hot chocolate and cookies, usually but not always chocolate chip. A big lunch with canned tomato soup from the summer before, hot sourdough bread that had been rising behind our big wood stove with grilled cheese and pickle sandwiches topped with pork loaf. I think that might have been more fun than sledding down the driveway, which was nearly a mile long and very, very steep! We would take turns pulling one another back up the mountain on our ATV until it became too slick for even that rugged vehicle. We had only one family of neighbors, an elderly couple who were by themselves on their family farm a few miles past us, further into the Appalachian wilds. They would stop and fuss at us in their old jeep that we were making the road too slick. We hardly paid attention.

Mom would try to confine us to specific areas to undress, with our soaked clothes and frozen shoes, but seven children are hard to confine in any way, especially when there are leftover biscuits and cookies to snag out of the kitchen jars, applesauce just made out of fall apples that had been stored in our cellar from days spent with our fruit trees under the bright October sun as the leaves transformed into magical color and the days became shorter and nights colder.

There would always be a bean soup of some kind simmering on the wood stove, usually with onions, potatoes, garlic, dried herbs and a soup bone of some sort. Combine that with slab-cut bacon, applesauce and sourdough bread and you had yourself a meal fit for the gods.

As poor as we were, we really never noticed. We never went hungry, we were never fat as children (it took years of fast food and alcohol consumption for any of us to actually get fat) and our nutrition levels were off the charts.

So, the last two days, as the snow has poured down nearly incessantly, I have been gripped with a desire to cook. Chores that I once found to be heinous, such as canning, I now do out of pure enjoyment. So, Laura and I went to work. We made spaghetti sauce for freezing, peeled and cored apples for canning, baked apple cake, played in the snow with Nolan despite all three of us having head colds and in general had a wonderful time.

snow2_01

snow2_02

snow2_03

snow2_04

snow2_07

snow2_08

apples_01

IMG_0202

IMG_0178

I rarely bake, but our apple cake was wonderful and the applesauce and applebutter will be a delight, especially for Nolan, who loves the stuff. He also loves olives, bread – and nearly everything else that you stick in the kids face. I guess he is like us!

IMG_0191

Applesauce Spice Cake (Adapted from “Canning for a New Generation” by Liana Krissoff

Dry Ingredients: 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, one cup of light brown sugar, one teaspoon of cinnamon, ½ a teaspoon of nutmeg, ½ teaspoon cloves, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Wet Ingredients: One cup of applesauce, ¼ cup of softened butter, ¾ cup of water.

Optional: ½ cup of nuts, ½ cup of raisins. You can also substitute for other dried fruit. My personal favorite is dried apricots, but I rarely buy them as I eat them all!

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix until “pourable.” Pour into a lightly greased nine-inch cake pan or well-greased iron skillet and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a chopstick or toothpick, inserted into the middle, comes out clean. Let it stand for ten to fifteen minutes and then enjoy!!

IMG_0203

IMG_0194

IMG_0211

 

IMG_0210

Lest I forget, Happy Valentines Day!

apples_06

Tire Chains and Spaghetti

“Are you sure?” My brother, seven years younger than me, was looking at the snow covered mountainside a little dubiously. That sounded just about as close to a challenge to me as you could possibly issue. I replied with some comically heroic answer about no mountain too steep or “No Fear” or something boneheaded like that as I revved the engine in my seriously underpowered little 4×4 Nissan Pickup. No doubt I was imagining something from a Mountain Dew Commercial or maybe a Kid Rock Video at the doubt, complete with spouting champagne and bikini-clad, peroxide blondes with too much makeup and no scruples, the kind who would, in time, become the bane of my existence and constant weakness.

Not that day. I was eighteen and my brother and I had been out most of the day since there was no work or school due to the blizzard, doing what most rural, redneck, country boys do when it’s snowing: Go Four-Wheeling! I mean, what’s to stop you? It’s not like there is nothing else to do, what watch T.V.? Hah! Why? Play X-Box? Sorry, they hadn’t been invented. Teenagers still behaved like teenagers in the early 1990’s, in that if given an opportunity to play with an electronic game or a chainsaw, well, you know the answer. There were far more chainsaws than electronic games in our part of the world, which made our entertainment much more accessible.

I revved the engine and threw away the clutch, redlining the engine and taking advantage of all sixty horsepower that the massive (in my mind, it was a Chevy big-block with about the same horsepower rating of a fighter jet) engine had to offer. Just as James said, “Maybe we should put the tire chains on?”

Too late. Fully committed to the events at hand, I launched the truck, with wheels spinning furiously, towards the mountainside, which we had not checked for things under the snow, such as stumps, ditches, rocks, someone’s cow or any of the other objects that could be subject to a high speed collision. Luckily for us, there were no such objects buried in the snow. Not so lucky for us, there was a drift of snow piled against the bottom of the hill, into which I recklessly plowed, as gung-ho as a Marine on my first assignment.

Full speed ahead, we ran square into the snowdrift, the tires clawing their way down to the frozen earth beneath, where they found absolutely no traction, despite my repeated attempts to free us from the icy grip. James looked at me sideways. “I guess we’ll put the chains on now.” Smartass. He was wise beyond his years. I still listen to him.

Maybe it was him I was listening to today, his voice in the back of my head somewhere. Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe it’s because I now have a child. Whatever the reason, I put chains on the truck before the projected snowfall began. They’re relatively easy to install when it’s dry, not snowing, and you’re not stuck. It’s not when all the above conditions are occurring at once, in the dark, while your wife is trying unsuccessfully to give you directions as you roll around in the snow and mud with a tiny flashlight in your mouth in a violent attempt to place what appears to be frozen strands of incredibly heavy spaghetti around your tire without moving the vehicle, because it won’t move BECAUSE IT’S STUCK!!

So, here are a few pictures on how to install chains.

First, already have the chains. If you live in the eastern U.S., the chances of a store having a set that will fit on the eve of a major snow even is slim to none. In that case, stay home.

IMG_0167[1]

Stretch the chains out on the ground, working out as many kinks as you can. Remember, the hooks need to be pointed DOWN towards the ground. They’re also easier to install if the locking side of the chain is on the outside of the tire.

IMG_0168

Drive your vehicle onto the chains as they are positioned on the ground. See why this is hard when you are stuck?

IMG_0170

Fasten the chains loosely around the tires making sure that they are positioned evenly.

IMG_0175

Go for a drive, then re-tighten. Even if it doesn’t snow, now you are ready for nature’s worst! Your truck or SUV is now nearly unstoppable! Test drive it again, then go inside, make some hot tea or cocoa and help your son and wife taste the spaghetti sauce she’s been busy making while you’ve been rolling around on the frozen ground cursing the day you moved to the country and need tire chains to get out of your drive.

spaghetti_01

spaghetti_03

Biscuits and Footraces

IMG_0145

It was one of those spring afternoons. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly cool and everything smelled of growing and blooming things. Strawberries and rhubarb were already ripe with the promise of early morning snacking in the gardens and homemade jam with biscuits from my Grandmother. The air was redolent with pollen and the soothing sounds of bees and tree frogs, everything in existence seemed to be celebrating spring.

That day in the late 1980’s, all of us children and teenagers were also celebrating. It was difficult to get us to pay attention to anything whatsoever. There were baby chicks just hatched, piglets begging to be caught at a great risk to the pursuer, baby goats bleating and running for their bottles when you showed up in the late afternoon as the mist poured down the impossibly steep terrain of the Appalachian Plateau.

It was honey harvesting time and most matriarchs had thrown open their pantries, moving it seemed almost simultaneously from a mood of hoarding and rationing to gorging on last year’s jams and canned fruit. The first eggs of the spring were being gathered and cooked in every way imaginable, especially easy-over in bacon grease with the ever-present jar of peach preserves and lard biscuits occupying the center spot on the kitchen table.

There are four brothers in my immediately family, with three sisters. Altogether, back then, we were probably an overwhelming sight. My mother drove a VW Van, bright yellow with a white top. It seemed that it was always either broken down or about to be, but it was cheap, easy to repair and went like a tank in the snow. It was also incredibly slow and the defroster never worked and there was no A/C at all. We didn’t care. We didn’t know enough to realize that by the time and geographical place in which we lived, that van was considered one step above walking. We loved the thing.

We were coming home from school that particular day, wild with energy and so anxious to get to Grandmother’s house we could barely wait. Only about three miles from school, her tiny house was a gathering place for the entire Matney clan. We would gather on holidays or whenever we happened to wander in, picking apples and helping with gardens and of course, always eating.

The brother closest to me in age, by virtue of being the oldest I got to sit in the front of the van and hold my youngest sister while Mom drove, was already wildly competitive with me. I guess that’s to be expected with a large family of brothers. We would fight each other just as quickly and savagely as we would fight anyone who opposed us or bullied any of our family members, particularly our sisters.

So, in the spirit of competition, our new game was to see who could win a footrace from the parking spot in front of the garage to Grandma’s front door. She would always be there in her simple dress and apron, ready to dictate a winner, which would sometimes be me and sometimes be James, based on who she thought deserved it that day. Despite the fact he was younger, he was incredibly fast and it was getting harder to beat him, despite my being a few years older.

I heard the door behind me bang open before Mom even stopped the van. I realized that James would get a few seconds head start and hastily handed my sister to my Mom, even as she was telling me to get things out of the back. Nearly deaf, I had the perfect way to not listen: Just turn my head. Voices faded into the distance and I was in a near-silent place where the only thing that mattered was outrunning my brother to the front door, where I could already see Grandmother waiting, ready to declare a winner and a reward of a freshly baked cookie.

We ran as only little boys can, heedless of footing and safety, worried only about speed and the thrill of the competition. James had taken the shorter track, straight down the mountain past the oil pit where our Grandfather and nearly everyone else in our community changed their oil, allowing it to spill heedlessly into the ground, where it was supposedly rendered inert, somehow.

James took the lead and I realized that there wasn’t much chance of catching him. He went through the front gate and I went over the fence, an easy-for-me-then-impossible-now leap nearly seven feet in the air from the hillside, over the fence and into the yard, where I rolled to my feet and bolted for the door. James was still ahead and laughing hysterically, knowing he had won the race. I was one step behind him when he hit the front swinging door.

It had been a cold winter, colder than normal and a chilly spring. The swinging front door was still armored with its glass planes, protection against the wind gusts and helping with a barrier to the rest of the house.

Traveling as fast as a little boy could possibly go, with me one step behind, James ran through the glass. He tried to stop, last second, then just put his arms up and went through. I had only a split second to realize what had happened and then we were on our way to the emergency room with an eight-inch gash in James’ arm.

Why were we racing? Besides the cookie, Grandma always kept an old crock with a cork top full of cat’s-head biscuits. She made them with lard every single morning and they were still delicious in the afternoon, topped with honey, sorghum, peach jam, fresh strawberries, old gravy, fatback or whatever else she happened to have around. We would eat until we were stuffed, much to my mother’s dismay as she would try to restrain us enough to make sure we would eat dinner when we got home, which would be much healthier, in her mind, than what we were scarfing down at the moment. After biscuits, it was time to play with the chickens, gather firewood, chase the cats out of the sheds and look for new flowers.

As time progressed, lard fell out of favor and became nearly obsolete, replaced by its distant and government sponsored cousin, Crisco. Vegetable oil replaced emulsified butter and olive oil fell to the side. People started getting fatter and fatter, all the time wondering why. Grandma finally gave up lard under pressure from the family and bemoaned her weight gain immediately after.

I’ve missed those biscuits for years and I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate them or something like it, with absolutely no luck. I couldn’t find lard, full-fat buttermilk or the old self-rising flour that Grandma Audrey used. I then discovered a local flour source, a place to buy lard at the farmer’s market and full-fat buttermilk at the country grocery near us.

IMG_0129

IMG_0131

I was ready, but with no recipe. My Aunt Vickie Baldwin, raised in the deep south and with all the traditions that entails, sent me the following recipe:

“OK Ron, try this: Place approx. 4 cups self-rising flour (not plain like I had said earlier, I was having a “senior moment”) in a large bowl. Make a “well”, or indentation, in the middle of the flour. In this indentation put approx. 1 cup lard. Slowly pinch the lard with the flour between your fingers, mixing it. When you get it half incorporated, slowly add 1 cup buttermilk, continuing to incorporate the mixture with your fingers. Once it is all mixed and of a consistency of dough, pinch double walnut sized amount of dough off, roll it lightly in more self-rising flour, and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 until golden brown, maybe 15 minutes, maybe longer. The key is to work the dough as little as possible, the more it is kneaded or messed with, the tougher your biscuits will be. Pull them out, split them, add butter and either your honey or sorghum syrup, or maybe homemade fig preserves, and eat. If I lived closer, I would make them with you.”

IMG_0125

IMG_0128

I did find that they are better, in my opinion, in a cast iron skillet that is over one-hundred years old handed down from my Grandmother. Maybe her spirit still lives in the shiny black surface. I found myself a little superstitiously studying this dark, liquid-like surface after breakfast, after Laura and Nolan had eaten most of the biscuits. Maybe I could sense her presence, I’m not really for sure. But when I closed my eyes, I felt I could smell the faintest aroma of a coal and wood fired cook stove, hear the singing of the tree frogs and I thought that for one brief moment, I was a teenager again, racing my brother towards the smell of good things in the kitchen.

IMG_0135

IMG_0134