Every so often — and not that often, actually — hard work, the generous and unstinting help of one’s friends and plain dumb luck give a guy as close to a perfect day as one can get. That’s what we got yesterday at the 10th and last Salute to Meat.
We had perfect weather for just about 100 people, and when Janet asked some them at the end which of the 10 courses contained their best bite, each course was well represented. This is what you want.
The situation didn’t look so sunny on Thursday night and Friday: Janet had come home from our vacation with a stomach issue that turned out to be diverticulitis. She was admitted to the hospital Thursday after developing a bad reaction to the antibiotic she was prescribed and didn’t get released until late Friday night, just 18 hours before the party.
In the meantime, our friends started calling with offers of help. Phoenix, who drove Janet to the hospital and stayed with her for hours on Thursday, returned Friday to punch out 3-inch rounds from soft tortillas for the pork belly course, and caramelized 10 pounds of onions for the steak.
Other friends Becky and Dan and Madonna and Steve called often to check in and offer help, came to bring coolers and other things you’d only need for the crowd we had expected. Janet’s son, Zach, who is the menschiest guy I know, and his girlfriend, Hannah, came early to help and led all the outdoor setup. And our friend Kathy came early and helped in the kitchen all day and evening.
These are the friends one wants to have, wonderful people pulling us to the finish line.
There were other, less dire challenges. The brisket was done six hours early, actually overdone when I woke up to check it at 3 a.m. Saturday. I foiled it, put it in a cooler wrapped in foil and towels, and put it on warming trays in the afternoon when its temperature started to drop too low. It turned out a little drier than I would have liked, but people came back for seconds!
Brisket ready to be cut. That’s Janet in the black, with her back to the camera.
I also tried to grill too many 2 1/2-pound steaks at once, going for a reverse sear on two rack levels, and lost one steak in a flareup. There was still plenty that was perfect.
And I thought a few of the ribs were overdone — I like pull-off-the-bone texture — but they went fast and people asked for more.
12 racks of St. Louis-style ribs, membranes removed, ready for rubbing
Aside from the ribs, the big hits seemed to be the pastrami Reubens and pork belly with gochujang sauce.
Prepping the pork belly course
Pastrami Reubens ready to go out. Someone said she didn’t like sauerkraut. We accommodate all tastes!
Kielbasa picked and ready to go out, lamb just off the grill and ready to cut. The greenery is the mis en place for the deconstructed BLTs, ready for the piece of thick, home-cured and smoked bacon at the end of the toothpick.
The two picnic shoulders, ready to pull.
The pulled picnics, ready for sauce.
All in all, we were very pleased with the food, although Janet couldn’t eat a bite — she’s on a bland diet for a while.
But I’ll tell you what: I worked on the food for the best part of a week, thought about this party for the best part of a year. And here’s the image I want to remember:
A beautiful day in my back yard, our friends having a good time. This is about half the crowd; there is another tent to the left.
Today my almost-67-year-old legs are sore. There is a little cleanup left to do, not much.
So, it was a wonderful time, a fantastic 10 years of feeding our friends, learning how to smoke, cure and cook my favorite meats. From time to time I would sing a song or two with the trio of our friends who’d play guitar and violin to entertain; I’d never done that before and I’m not likely to again.
I’ll remember the night in 2014 when the police came because we had been noisy outside after midnight. And the monsoon in 2015 when I pulled steaks off the Egg while wearing a slicker with someone holding an umbrella over me so the meat wouldn’t get wet.
There was last year, when the freezer died a month before the party and we didn’t know about it until 10 days later because we had been on vacation. Then lightning struck a tree on our front lawn the night before the party. It was great, anyway.
We thought last year’s drama had been had been pretty much the limit, until yesterday.
The thing is, there is no limit to what can happen, but neither is there a limit to what you can do if you have friends to help you.
On the day after a party like this it’s easy to wax nostalgic and imagine just one more party, one more perfect day watching Janet create a miracle in the kitchen — 10 courses in three hours — and seeing all our friends in our back yard in the sun, eating and enjoying themselves.
I might imagine it, but I’m never doing this again. Maybe we’ll find something else, a different menu, fewer people, a more relaxed day for us. It may be a different kind of perfect, but perfect nonetheless.
And for all I’ve learned about food and cooking in these 10 years, I’ve learned that the perfect party isn’t entirely about the menu. The food may have created the occasion, but our friends’ gift of their days with us has given us a collage of memories that will warm us forever.