Replete Summer

Open fire steaks.

Every year as fall rolls around I look back on the previous three months and mentally tick off all of the things that I should have taken the opportunity to do that I can not do the other nine months of the year here in northwestern Pennsylvania.  I usually feel like I somehow squandered the daily fifteen hours of light and warmth and should have had more hikes, canoe trips, and picnics or sat out on the deck reading until dusk more often than I managed.  I lament not using all of the charcoal I bought in May and realize that I didn’t grill my own hamburger once all summer.  Despite all of my efforts and planning every year, just as soon as I am biting into a Memorial Day hot dog I blink and I am sadly scraping up the last bite of Labor Day baked beans.

Not this year.  No, no, no. As I sit and reflect upon this summer the events of June seem like a lifetime ago.  This summer, there was no opportunity for regret… or rest, or a garden, or any lawn care at all for that matter.  Now that I am finally writing, I realize that I should have taken notes along the way. (To further punctuate this point, I have been writing and rewriting this post for at least three weeks.)  To counteract my typical last minute panic of late August cramming, I packed the months of the summer of 2012 chock full of  travel and events that left me begging for a moment to squander catching my breath and collecting my thoughts. All told, it was worth it.

31 years of life on this island Earth I had restricted myself to traveling by land and managed to develop a healthy fear of flying for no reason other than unfamiliarity.  Never going further than a two days drive from home I had happily been able to get by with packing up a vehicle and committing to the great American tradition of a road trip. Although I am confident that I could have spent my lifetime exploring my 600 mile radius and be absolutely content in its wonders, it was fortuitous that events  finally occurred that forced me into the air and lands beyond.  A good friend from college and native Californian may recall my swearing off visiting his home turf simply because I didn’t want to be distracted.  I had spent time on the East Coast, and I liked it enough that I did not want to risk a visit to the West Coast on the off chance that I would like it it as well, and would it therefore divide my focus.  I love NY…I don’t want to love SF now too damn it!

Yet,my trip to San Francisco was everything that I expected it yo be.  I had an entirely new to me Japanese dish, got to visit one of my favorite breweries, found a new brewery, ate In-n-Out Burger, had a cup of coffee that had the complexity of a fine wine, ate what was hands down the best wedding meal I had ever had, all the while seeing a part of the country that was completely new to me.  It was a great trip and was everything that I feared it would be as I now long to go back.

The beef we used in our Shabu Shabu. The menu said “Kobe”, I knew better, but this was hands down the most delicate beef I have ever eaten.

Also from the Shabu Shabu. If veg could always be this exciting…

Apparently my photographer was being polite during dinner as I could not find any photos of this meal. All I have is this cell phone shot of part of the menu. Done “family style”,the meal came in courses and was shared around the table. Hanger steak! It was all I ever wanted.

As soon as I got back from San Francisco I made my annual Jolly July 3rd pork shoulder and immediately took a three day canoeing/camping trip with a group of guys on the Allegheny Reservoir.  Typically, this is not a situation that brings visions of culinary delights to most folks minds.  I, however, was well aware of the provocative powers that being in the wilderness and extra physical exertion can impart upon the palette. Every meal on a trip like that, whether made around a campfire or thrown together on the fly while traveling, is highly anticipated and fulfilling…and, once that effect had grown tiresome and bland, everything tasted all the better once I got home.

A couple weeks later it was back to the air as I accompanied some of the youth from my church to their national gathering in, of all places, New Orleans.  I had been there once before for my own youth gathering and, as has been been mentioned before, it somewhat sparked my fascination with the culinary world.  It did not disappoint. Even though it had been 15 years since I  had laid eyes on the place, I hit the streets with a comfortable familiarity that was obtained from the shear weight of that first encounter compounded with years of interest of reading and seeing about other things New Orleans is famous for.  Creole, gumbo, biegnets, red beans, bread pudding,  grits, muffuletta, fried chicken, witnessing a planned building demolition, and a return trip to Emeril Laggasse’s NOLA fulfilled the requirements for what I normally would call a good summer.

My plate from NOLA. Pork Cheek Po Boy. I think this image sums it up.

The next weekend involved another wedding feast but the weekend after that I was invited to participate in a turkey barbecue that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. A man I have come to respect and admire over the past couple of years showed me first hand how he roasts almost 150 pounds of turkey over a charcoal fire every year.  With a good  support team, he is able to handle all of the sides to go with it as the cooking fire is utilized for big pans of potatoes and a propane burner boils water for dozens of ears of corn.  This was my kind of meal to prepare. Enough meat, potato and veg for the masses, and then everything else that people bring along fills in the gaps.

IA glimpse inside the roaster which consisted of two other spits like this one.

Another trip into the woods the next week allowed me to experience some more wild cooking sensations.  I cooked some open fire steaks and potatoes for one dinner and broke in a new cast iron camp stove with some chicken and dumplings.  On this trip I came to realize that one of my favorite things is cooking bacon over an open fire.  Already smoky pig fat, coupled with the heat and smoke of a campfire…and a cup of coffee, might just be the perfect start of any given day.

Perfect breakfast griddle setup.

The final days of summer brought with them an event that I had not experienced in some years but I hope becomes a yearly tradition now.  Pig Roast.  All of my favorite bits of summer, rolled up into one day. All-day-meat, smoke, beer, friends and other people’s culinary creations. In a pinch, in coming years, this event could make up for a whole summer of 12 hour work days coupled with record rain fall.

Getting the final temps.

But yet, as I am getting ready to finish writing my post on the passing of summer there is snow in the five day forecast. I suddenly find myself lamenting the missed days of fall and idolising my own mental autumn utopia.  Caught up in my own joy of having throttled all of the living life out of summer, I turned my back just long enough to have autumn slip past me unexpectedly.  As I start to dwell on the things I had planned to do but didn’t, I think of how I spent the last five weeks.  I wasn’t bored.  A lot of memorable things were accomplished.  One happening was planned, with all the familiar weight of excitement and anticipation, but others were impulsive and in-the-moment, and I realize that it didn’t matter.  A lot of what I felt as this summer’s awesomeness came from my excitement and expectations for all that I had planned…just the opposite of ruining a summer by dwelling on regret and wondering what could have been.  In the end, I am reminded that I can appreciate everything that the season offers in any given moment.  Whether it be meticulously planned out or stumbled upon with a bit of serendipity…I just have to stop long enough to recognize it.

All I know though, next summer, will be legendary.


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