On Memorial Day, I thought a lot about my daddy. Not because he died in the war — he lived another 40+ years after his World War II military service. That was long enough for him to fall in love with and marry a tiny but tough-as-nails beauty. Long enough for the two of them to have a son, and 9.5 years later (surprise!) a daughter, whom some might say Daddy spoiled shamelessly. (Fine, everybody says it, but if you ask me, that’s what Daddys are supposed to do. And I am what I am. Deal with it.)
Daddy lived long enough to see both my brother Jimmie and me grown and married ourselves, and long enough to know my brother’s two children, though not long enough to meet any of their children. Or to meet my son. And, well, just not long enough PERIOD. Nevertheless, the point is that the holiday reminds me of Daddy. Not because of its primary purpose, but because of its inextricable secondary association with cookouts.
There wasn’t much my daddy enjoyed doing more than cooking barbecued chicken* on the grill. He died in 1988, but I can still see him standing out in our yard on most any gloriously hot, humid North Carolina day. Sporting Bermuda shorts that showed off the big old blue-gray parrot tattoo on his calf (courtesy of a wild night during his Navy days), he’d invariably have his shirt unbuttoned all the way, beer belly be damned! Daddy loved hot weather, but he wasn’t about to “cook” more than the chicken did while he produced yet another poultry pièce de résistance.
*In NC, people cook barbecued chicken. They do NOT barbecue chicken. Barbecue can be an adjective or a noun, but NEVER a verb. Likewise, a grill is a NOUN, a thing you cook that chicken on. Self-respecting North Carolinians do NOT grill things. Ha’mercy.
Daddy was a man who never put a bird on the coals without reminding his wife, children, and anyone else within earshot, “Few white people can cook a chicken as good as I can.” I guess it goes without saying that political correctness wasn’t exactly on the radar of anybody we knew back then, though, of course, it should have been. Still, based strictly on my personal experience with barbecued chicken cooked by both white and non-white folks over the years, I’d say there was plenty of just plain truth in Daddy’s claim.
Every chef has his or her secret, and Daddy was no exception. Most of his magic was in the method, which boiled down to standing over his rickety yellow-and-green metal box grill (eventually lined with foil as its bottom grew worse for the wear). He’d poke that chicken relentlessly with a white-rag-wrapped, red-pepper-flakes-and-vinegar sauce-drenched barbecue fork. He worried that bird to death — or to put it more aptly, into delicious submission. But his real recipe for success was all in the timing. The chicken was done when and only when Daddy ran out of one of the following things: Falstaff beer, salt to sprinkle on top of the can, or paper towels to wrap around it (Koozie madness hadn’t struck the American South yet).
By then, Mama would have the stewed ketchup potatoes ready. If you don’t know what those are, bless your heart, you’re going to want to stop reading and start making this recipe. Right. This. Minute. I know how it sounds, but don’t be a food snob. You don’t know what you’re missing. Of course, as with all good recipes, you have to mess around with this one to suit your specific taste.
To my mother, that meant measuring NOTHING and instead putting in as much or as little of this and that as she damned well pleased, leaving out that nasty garlic altogether. (Real Southern cooks are often suspicious of spices besides salt, pepper, and onion powder. A perfectly logical kind of wariness, if you ask me.) Mama also believed that “overcooking vegetables” was both an oxymoron and a downright beautiful thing. She’d defiantly take those potatoes way past mushy all the way to potato gravy that was perfect for chasing around your plate with a nice soft folded-in-half slice of buttered Sunbeam bread, or — if we’d been living especially right that day — with some of Mama’s crispy fried-in-the-iron-skillet cornbread. And then there was the homemade coleslaw, heavy on the carrots, and the tea sweet enough to make every single employee at Bojangles’ hang his/her head in shame.
Then Daddy would bring in his masterpiece, heaped up on one of Mama’s yellow-and-green-flowered melamine plates, and looking every bit as good as it was about to taste. Mama or Daddy typically called dibs on the liver, and if my brother happened to be there too, supper might well be delayed while two of us argued over who got the heart and the almighty gizzard. (Hey, don’t knock these under-rated but delectable chicken parts ’til you’ve tried ’em!)
Since I’ve arrived at gizzards now, I guess I’ve wandered a bit from where I started. Oh, well, that’s how memories roll. Once you hop on board, they have a way of taking you where they want you to go. Right now, I think I’ll go grab me a salt-shaker, a can of beer, and a paper towel. Maybe I can even convince David to cook us a barbecued chicken on the grill tonight.
Nah. I love him, but he’d be the first to admit he’s just not one of those few white people.