I saw bunting on a neighbors front porch today; 3 drapes of red, white and blue in perfectly spaced semi-circles, fully deployed like patriotic stripper fans from a 50's burlesque show.
"Damn, John beat me..." I murmured, "looks like the casket flags are coming out early this year."
The Quinn house of Tiara Drive in Milwaukie, Oregon will not be outdone in decorating for the Independence Day celebration in our neighborhood. We have index card sized flags planted around the front yard perimeter. There is a garage sale find, sheet-sized, veterans burial flag that is tacked up under the gutters over the garage door. The mail box is festooned with crossed flags on sticks. A standard 3' X 5' flag on a piece of one-by is taped to the telephone pole on the corner at a 45 degree angle. Bunting hangs under the two bedroom windows facing the street while 3 crepe paper rolls of our national colors wrap the clematis pole on the front porch. I'm wearing a Hawaiian styled shirt with the Preamble to the Constitution printed on it worn only one day per year.
Damned if I'll be out done.
It's a friendly competition, but, the day has nothing to do with neighbors winning or losing. The day is about love, friendship and gratitude for all who came before us as stewards of this great land we live in today. We show our love for one another by preparing food, opening our home and providing the best hospitality we know how to offer. Then there are the illegal fireworks in the street as darkness falls and guests carry camp chairs from the back deck to the front yard while a few cigar smoking dads referee the pyrotechnic display, keeping everyone reasonably safe.
I can't wait.
People who have attended past 4th of July celebrations ask if BBQ Pork Spare Ribs will be on the smoker, will Lisa make her famous Banana Cake with Whipped Cream frosting, blueberries for Stars and Strawberries for stripes on the flag, will Home made Garlic Dill Pickles be available? Is anyone bringing Deviled Eggs, Watermelon, Solo Cups and Ice? Should the kids bring their suits for the unheated Jacuzzi? Yes, yes and a thousand times Yes, but, bring what you do best, I tell people. OM-Gosh, the offerings are straight from the heart as our friends arrive with some predictable accompaniments and some straight from their childhood.
"This is my Aunt Rosalie's Potato Salad, it's the best you've EVER tasted. I taped my name on the bottom of the bowl, see?" as she cautiously hoists the container over her head for proof. Others still,
"We brought Jello shots. These are Cherry Vodka, these ones are Cinnamon Vodka and these guys are Lemoncello...ya got room in the fridge for 'em?"
"Gluten-free Hot Dogs for my kids, hope that's OK..."
"I brought the lettuce and the ingredients for Caesar salad. Can you help me with this and do you have a bowl?" as my friend plopps a freshly dispensed paper shopping bag down on the kitchen counter.
"I've got it," I assure her, gently shepherding her out of the kitchen towards the patio, "Go get yourself a glass of Prosecco and find a seat at the Girls Table,"
The Fourth is unlike any other celebration in that people don't mill around waiting to be engaged. People arrive happy and in great spirits, like it's their home or we're related. Complete strangers may loiter for up to a minute, but, will soon be in conversation with another guest.
"Let me get you a beer"
"What'd you say your name was?"
"How are you connected here; friend, family or from the parish?"
"Yeah, just put that over there on the food table. Hell, that looks good, whad'ja make there!?"
It's better than a Christmas party. The Fourth is a gathering of people with shared experiences, memories of summertime childhood bliss, home made treats, kids playing till sweat-dripped, moms clucking and whooping, dads always standing while telling lies and laughing.
Perhaps it's the informality of it all.
There is no dress code, china or cloth napkins. You can talk, laugh and tell a story with a mouth full of food. Kids are never told to eat all their vegetables or hold their fork a certain way. Watermelon is supposed to drip on a child's belly and dessert is not saved for last. It's OK to chase the chickens and if you fall through the hammock, the grass is soft underneath. Say Please and Thank You. Yes, if we need a beer run, you can do it.
People on the Fourth of July are out-SIDE themselves with gratitude and hospitality, whether guest or host. "How can I help" is an oft-used phrase, followed by, "Let me get that for you." Women must love it. It's like every guy is a co-host; clearing a stack of plates, picking up beer bottle tops, taking some trash out, topping off the Girls in the 'Mom Zone.' The funniest damn thing when a guy slides in to provide a service, that the gals are beside themselves, like it's Mother's Day or their birthday. Jeez, are we that bad on other days?
I like the girls to be pampered a little, they're so appreciative of the smallest kindness in the company of other women. If it was the living room on a Wednesday night and you brought her a glass of Pinot Grigio, no big deal. In front of other women? You just crossed the Sahara barefoot holding her wineglass only.
Do the same thing at Christmas? Not that big of a deal, either. It's to be expected, thank you very much, and now you may go away, we're talking.
On the Fourth, it's like I put a slug in a pinball machine and got 3 plays.
Somethin for nuthin.
And on the Fourth, people love the food, all of it. There is no critque-ing, no down side, no 'hmm, that could have been done better." It's all gone at the end of the night! Complete disasters are consumed by rabid children fueled by over stimulation and 56 grams of sugar. Remnant ribs are wrapped in aluminum foil to select friends at the end of the night, as a bootlegger might slip a flask into a clients jacket pocket with a wink and pat on the shoulder. Should there be a dish that didn't sell as well, it is distributed into 'ToGo' plates and foil wrapped for guests to enjoy at a later date. No harm, no foul. But BBQ Pork Ribs?...
...they have to be spot-on! I have done bowls with 'hot and 'mild' for the sauce, but, found that squeeze bottles do a more efficient job. BBQ'd pork spare ribs, slowly cooked over mesquite charcoal, are the benchmark upon which all other ribs are judged, according to my children. I even have a picture of my baby girl, Bonnie Belle, at 1 year of age in a high chair, holding a single rib, her face covered in sweet, sticky sauce and smiling like she just found a golden Easter egg. Funny, each year as my boys grow up and move away, they ask the same thing:
"So, Dad, you're doin' ribs, right?" Like I would order Subway for our BBQ or engage in some other sinful act.
"Ya damn rights, I'm doin' ribs!" I say as I shake my head wondering if somehow Newton's First Law is no longer valid, Portland isn't truly weird and that ketchup water is no longer an abomination.
Yes, ribs are the center of the menu, all 12 full racks of ribs, each rack possessing 13 bones. All 156 ribs will be dry-rubbed, smoked to a cracked skin perfection and drizzled with a hot version of my personal, sweet sauce. They will rest in the enameled Nesco warmer, it's cloth covered, 40's cord plugged into an outlet near the food table, steaming gently all day, getting more and more tender.
People will consume food and beverage the entire day. We will laugh. Children will play. Music will fill the air. Ribs will touch their soul as no dessert ever can.
"Mr. Quinn," a Gabrish boy will tell me, "I came her for the ribs and they ROCK!"
"Dad, nice job. These are just like I remember them, " a son will say.
"I don't normally eat meat, but, these are like SOOOO good," a young mom informs me.
"Dude...nice." a dad tells me, waving a shiny bone right before he flips it into the garbage can.
Informality. Meat. Bones. Fire. Smoke.
We have evolved in myriad ways, but, sweet meat on a smokey fire still stirs a shared primal, genetic hunger.
Give it a shot this year, smoke some Pork Ribs on the 4th of July and watch your world assemble, celebrate friendship and grow closer.
All with a sweet smile.
BBQ Pork Spare Ribs
1 full rack....Pork Spare Ribs, untrimmed
1 C. ...kosher salt
2T. ....ground black pepper
2T. ....ground coffee, dark, fine
1T. ....smoked Spanish paprika
1T. ....chile powder, dark
Unwrap the slab of ribs and place in your spotlessly clean kitchen sink.
Combine all spices for the rub in a mixing bowl with a whisk, transfer to a sheet of paper and pour into a large holed shaker. Like what is called a 'dredge,' a large shaker. You won't have to use all the dry rub on the rack. It's more than you need, really.
Using tongs in one hand, hold the rack while you generously coat the exterior. The rub will stick to your hands and make a mess if you're pawing them with a bare hand. Just sayin'.
Set aside on a cookie sheet.
Go outside to your webber dome or whatever charcoal grill you have on hand. Using only Mesquite Charcoal, make a stack and douse with fluid. Ignite and let your fire rage. Once the coals have gone to white, knock them down to an even layer and place the grill on to heat up and burn off any remnants from previous successes. Give it a brush and place your ribs, meat-side up, on the grill. Cut the rack in half if need be, to fit in your smoker. Cover and adjust the vents for passage of hot air circulation and smoke to escape.
If the fire gets too hot at first, choke it down or even sprinkle with water. The smoking process for this should take 4 hours. If your heat begins to die, push a stick of oak, cherry or any hardwood onto the coals and allow to ignite, then, cover and choke it down allowing the smoke to escape.
As the meat cooks, you will see the flesh receding from the tips of the bones. That's a good thing.
When done, the bones will become flexible in the rack as you bend them with your tongs.
Remove and tightly wrap in foil to steam themselves for 30 minutes and become more tender.
Slice and serve with a light hand on sauce.
Sounds like tending a newborn, but, at least this project won't spit up on you!
We celebrate our Founding Fathers and the principles for which they dedicated "...our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor..."
Have a great Fourth,
Take care, God bless and remember,
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"