Best of Days

William walked with his son Henry across their front lawn. The weather was nearly perfect, an observation that was becoming more apparent with each stride. “Sure is nice out today, don’t you think?” he said to his son.

Henry nodded. “What are we going to do today, Dad?”

The aim of the day had originally been to clean out the shed and maybe the gutters. However, this early trip to get the morning paper stirred up an alternate plan. “Young man,” William said, “let us head out on a little adventure.” It is funny, William thought, how wonderful spring mornings can change a day’s worth of plans with one whiff of warm spring air.

The parking lot at Scott’s was empty; however, the meat case was full. William and Henry’s eyes and imaginations grew larger and larger as they surveyed the choices. To no one in particular, Henry said, “Boy, oh boy, those sausages sure look nice. Those ribs, oh, wow, would you just look at those ribs!”

He was interrupted by Adam, the store’s owner. “It’s okay to talk to yourself, just don’t get in the habit of answering.”

William smiled. “We’ll take a little of everything.”

Laden with two pork butts, eight racks of ribs, six beef sausages and a dozen chicken thighs, William and Henry headed home.

“You think Mom will be mad?” Henry asked, genuinely concerned.

“Why would she be mad?” his dad replied, as he tuned the radio station.

“Well, we left abruptly and bought enough to feed an army of people.”

William smiled. “Well then, my young apprentice, we need to find an army of people.” He pulled over to the shoulder of the road and pulled out his phone. His brother-in-law Brent answered on the first ring and was quickly told, “Six o’clock, my house, BBQ, BYOB.”

Henry looked confused, “What was that, Dad?”

William patted him on the head. “That was an invitation to a lawn party. Brent knows what to do.”

Julie was watering the front bushes when they pulled into the drive. She sprayed water at the truck.

“I told you she would be mad, Dad!” Henry bellowed, as he shifted nervously in his seat.

“Heard we’re hosting a lawn party!” she teased, cinching the hose and walking towards the driver’s side window. She leaned in to kiss William and peered into the back seat. “What in the world!” she exclaimed surveying the meat. “Here’s the deal, you boys cook and clean. This is your rodeo—as for this mama, she is only showing up to eat.” Shaking her head, she turned and continued to water.

“Honey…” William called out in a longing tone.

Julie turned with a smile and said, “Of course, I will make some Lowcountry caviar, too.” William and Henry high-fived each other as they got to work on prepping the meat.

“Son, some people say to put nothing but smoke on your meat…” William rubbed his belly and hitched up his pants as he scanned the dark corners of the shelf before he continued. “But me, I like a little sweet heat.” He took from the cabinet a few select jars and began unscrewing the tops, touching each to his nose. “Mmm, hmm,” he said closing his eyes, “smell this one; it’s what gives the meat that family taste.”

His son stood on his tippy toes and strained for a sniff. “What’s in it, Dad?”

His father’s brow furrowed. “It’s a secret so special only I know it.”

A voice called his bluff from across the room. “Don’t let him fool you, it is nothing more than Old Bay shrimp boil. If you call that a secret spice, then I am Porky the Pig!” The skeptic was Uncle Brent. He walked through the front door with bagged ice and a case of beer.

“Says you,” William retorted. “I’ve added my personal touch to the base over the years.”

Brent put his arm around William. “I hope you brought your A-game today, so far everyone I have called is coming!”

William poured measured portions from the unlabeled jars into a pan. The aroma was pleasing to the nose. Taking a healthy handful of the rub, he smeared it over the meat. “Like spanking a baby”—smack, smack—his bare hand met the cool side of the pork butt.

A large grin pushed his son’s cheeks up to his eyes, causing him to squint. “Good one, Dad!” he chuckled in a deep, Ho-Ho-Ho tone. The same process was repeated with the ribs and chicken. After everything was adequately covered with rub and marinating coolly, it was time to make the fire.

“Young man,” William panned, “try not to light the yard on fire. I’ll get the wood.”

William studied an awkwardly piled heap of wood. Checking several pieces, he finally settled on a dark knotty piece. Thwack, thwack—his ax quickly chopped a thick round portion of the limb into quartered, splintered pieces. “We will need to add these pieces to the coals and let them burn down. We want a nice even heat and just a touch of good hickory and Georgia peach wood.”

Henry took the wood over to the smoker. “Low and slow,” he mused, as he placed the logs on top of the white embers.

A trail of thin blue smoke lingered in the spring air. A radio played softly in the background as William and Brent relaxed in lawn chairs. Henry dutifully lifted the top to the smoker and applied an apple vinegar mop sauce to the meat. This process remained steady for many hours. “What time is everyone coming over?” William called out from beneath the cap pulled down over his eyes and nose.

“Six,” Brent said, dozing in the sunshine.

William sat up abruptly. “What time is it now?”

Brent laughed and said, “Miller Time,” as he cracked open an ice-cold beer.

It was now nearly five o’clock and the bigger cuts of meat had been on for almost seven hours. William worried the meat wouldn’t be ready in time. Suddenly, and much to his relief, he heard beep, beep, beep! The alarm generated much excitement.

Henry jumped up to survey the thermometers. “Meat’s done!” Henry, Brent and William stood and peered through the smoke at the wonderful spread before them. “Let’s eat!” exclaimed Henry.

In the kitchen, there was a bustle of activity. By this hour, wives of friends and neighbors, sisters and nieces had convened to pour wine and start on hors d’oeuvres. Everyone stopped to marvel at the trays of meat. “Smells absolutely divine and looks even better,” Julie chirped. “I love spring lawn parties!”

“Honey,” William asked his wife curiously, “how’s that caviar coming?” She took a large spoon and placed it on his lips. “What does it need?” she asked.

Taking the spoon and savoring the mixture of black-eyed peas, jalapenos and sweet sauce, he closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not a dern thing!”

Guests and family gathered on a lawn that had not been mowed, using chairs, tables and tiki torches brought out from a shed that had not been cleaned. Men mingled in khaki shorts and ballcaps; the women in jeans and sunglasses. It was casual, relaxed and easy.

“Hear ye, hear ye,” William called, clanging a carving knife on the side of a beer bottle. “Let’s bless this mess.” After giving thanks, he asked Henry to pull the first rib with its perfect smoke ring. “Son,” he said, putting his arm around Henry’s shoulder, “These are the best days. Good friends, our family and a feast of smoked meats.”

Henry smiled and wiped sauce from his cheek. “You’re right, these are the best of days.”

Written by Gene Cashman.