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Southern Traditions and BBQ Sauce

I was born and raised in a sleepy little north Georgia town in the Atlanta suburbs. Considering the hustle and bustle of that area today, it is hard to imagine my hometown as little, much less sleepy.

Metropolitan Atlanta has seen many changes over the decades, some of it good, some not so good. What used to be farmland is now tacky McMansion subdivisions and once tightly-knit communities have become sterile towns with little or no character. Children are bussed to distant schools, medical care is provided by megalithic industrial-grade health centers, and restaurants do a brisk business as families find themselves too busy to cook and eat at home.

Growing up, I walked to grade school and I walked to high school. My mother had taught me to look both ways before crossing the street, so she never worried about my daily excursions to and from classes until I turned 16 and bought a motorcycle.

We knew all our neighbors, and all my schoolmates lived within walking distance. Our church pastor lived on our street and his children – slightly older than myself – took great pleasure in aggravating me.

When I got sick, I went to see the same doctor my grandparents, parents and eventually, my daughter went to see. If one of us required a hospital, we went to a small, caring community facility across town that somehow managed to pull us through most of our medical difficulties.

Our meals were usually eaten at home, most of them lovingly cooked by my mother. My father, an accomplished cook in his own right, having been trained by the army, reserved his culinary skills for the great outdoors.

While much of Southern society has changed, many valued traditions remain, and high on the list of what defines our culture is our food and nothing says “South” like Barbeque (BBQ.)

Anyone raised in the South understands the tradition of outdoor cooking and how the male gender claims it as their own. We also understand the difference between the art of Barbeque and the craft of grilling.

For those of you who innocently confuse the two, I will offer a brief explanation: BBQ involves the application of indirect heat and low temperatures to lesser cuts of meat in order to render the fat and tenderize the flesh. Various woods and charcoal supply the heat and there is usually an addition of dry rubs and sauces at various points in the process. Cooking BBQ can last anywhere from three hours for a rack of ribs to all day for a whole hog.

Grilling, on the other hand, uses direct heat (usually charcoal or propane) and the food is done in short order. Grilling is best used for burgers, steaks, and fish.

In the world of BBQ, the type of wood, rub mix, and sauce defines the individual BBQ chef and he will keep his recipes a closely-guarded secret that are handed down from father to son across several generations.

The foundation of my father’s outdoor cooking success was a home-grown BBQ sauce that could turn the most pedestrian cut of meat into a gastronomical delight. In the old southern tradition, his secret BBQ sauce recipe remained just that – his secret. As I became a man and began my own adventures into the realm of BBQ, I came to the unilateral decision that I was deserving of the family BBQ sauce recipe.

Years of begging and cajoling on my part failed to convince my father to divulge his secret recipe. I shamefully admit to having stooped so low as to enlist my mother as a spy to watch him cook his magical concoction in a vain and unsuccessful attempt to steal the magic potion. Sadly, most of my adult life as a grill master was relegated to the dirty little backwaters of commercial sauces that came sealed in colorful glass bottles offering much promise but delivering nothing but disappointment by the quart.

A few years back I celebrated yet another in a long string of birthdays that God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to bestow on me. Tucked inside a birthday card from my parents was a piece of paper, upon which my father had written out, in his own hand, the sacred and heretofore elusive BBQ sauce recipe.

After I regained my composure, my father proceeded to give me a hands-on demonstration of the proper way to BBQ chicken, including the application of the family sauce. The handing down of a family tradition was complete.

We, as a culture in the South, have many valued traditions. Some, like my father’s BBQ sauce will continue on. Others will become lost to the ages because they do not represent the current American culture.

Hate groups have taken the flag that linked us to our ancestors who gave their lives in a war that pitted brother against brother. They have made it their banner and now it is stained, not with our forefather’s blood but with the poison of groups that insist on preserving their own ugly tradition.

We have lost the small hospitals where the candy-stripers were our neighbors and the doctors were leaders in our churches. We now have giant medical corporations that have to teach customer service to their employees. We need “patient bill of rights” laws to protect us from HMOs whose chief executives glean millions in salaries.

We have lost our city streets to the drug dealers and pedophiles. Much of our southern hospitality has been replaced by materialism and individualism.

I used to see bumper stickers that said, “The South shall rise again.” My fellow Southerners, the South may have risen from many of its shortcomings but much of its qualities are on the dusty road to the landfill of history.

Resting in an envelope and sealed in a safe deposit box is a hand-written note, waiting to be passed to the next generation. If my daughter continues to display the southern-rooted family values she was taught, then maybe on some distant day, she will proudly present to her child, the old family BBQ sauce recipe that once belonged to her grandfather.

I hope, on that day, that great-grandchild will feel some small sense of his heritage.

Copyright © 2012 by Doug Couch
All Rights Reserved

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Pass Me The Grits And Hold The Sugar

People around the world are making plans for celebrating the arrival of the new year and food will play a big part in starting the year off right. From lentils and sausage in Italy to soba noodles in Japan, almost every culture has their own idea of what foods should be eaten on New Year’s Day to ensure prosperity in the coming months.

We Southerners are no different. Down in my neck of the woods, eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on the first day of January is the formula if you want money to come your way in the new year. The tradition is actually less of “Eat this and get rich,” and more of “Don’t eat this and go broke.” Legend has it that every pea represents a coin that will come your way and every bite of greens will become foldin’ money in the wallet.

In my youth, this New Year’s tradition was hosted by my aunt and uncle at their home out in the country. My parents would pack us up in the station wagon, hair still smelling of firecracker smoke from the night before, and head out to my aunt and uncle’s farm for a big lunch of easy money.

We would arrive to the intoxicating aroma of black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread wafting from my aunt’s kitchen. For you folks not familiar with Southern cooking, collard greens may sound like pretty dull fare, but the addition of a select ham hock or two and a long, slow simmer will bring out the best in a bunch of collards.

As long as I am explaining a few of the nuances of Southern cuisine, I may as well bring all my Yankee friends up to speed on the ham hock. Anatomically speaking, the ham hock is the extreme lower end of a swine’s hind leg, just above the ankle. When lovingly smoked along with the rest of brother pig’s hind-quarter, the ham hock becomes an essential flavoring ingredient in all sorts of savory Southern delicacies.

My aunt’s table would be set with large bowls of the aforementioned food and we children would set upon our plates like starving bears as we proceeded to stuff dreams of wealth down our necks. In retrospect, I never seemed to eat enough on that day to conjure up sufficient cash for a motor bike the following summer.

Now, this bit of history and explanation has served to bring me around to the point of my little story – sugar.

I know my next statement runs the the risk of offending a lot of fellow Southerners and stirring up all kinds of disagreement, but here goes: Sugar should never be part of a cornbread recipe.

In a perfect world, cornbread is a simple mix of cornmeal, eggs, oil and water cooked in a hot cast iron skillet until a deep brown crust covers the exterior. Add butter to a piping hot wedge of the stuff and you have the perfect accompaniment to almost any traditional Southern meal. Cornbread is part of the main course, not dessert.

Sugar is a key ingredient in much Southern food. We have all sorts of cakes and pies (Pecan being my favorite,) good BBQ requires brown sugar, and let us not forget our beloved sweet tea.

I am sure one thing we can all agree on is that sugar and grits do not mix. In fact, I love to watch the reaction that folks from other parts of the country have when first introduced to grits. Many of them will mistake grits for Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal and put sugar on it. Those of us in the know just add a little red-eye gravy or snuggle our ham next to the grits for some tasty goodness.

While I am harping on misappropriated sugar, I’ll stir the pot a little more by adding my short list of other foods that should not contain sugar: cole slaw, hush puppies, scrambled eggs, and biscuits. I understand how your opinions of proper Southern cooking may differ, but that is just how I was raised.

So, on New Year’s morning, while we all share in our breakfasts of golden brown biscuits, country ham, eggs and red-eye gravy, please pass me the grits and hold the sugar.

Copyright © 2011 by Doug Couch
All Rights Reserved

All Over A Pair Of Shoes

Mayhem broke out last week at a suburban Atlanta shopping mall as customers lost control of their senses when the new Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes went on sale.

When I say lost control, I mean children were abandoned by their mothers, the lesser were trampled by the greater, skirmishes broke out – basically a complete lack of civility and sanity. Atlanta was not just an isolated incident. Shoppers across the nation broke into fisticuffs and were stabbed or manhandled. Police had to apply generous portions of pepper spray to restore order, and several patrons missed the sale because their behavior resulted in them being “cuffed and stuffed” for their less than polite line etiquette.

Keep in mind, these people were not queuing up to buy front row Super Bowl tickets. They were there waiting for the opportunity to pay a princely sum for a pair for Chinese made sneakers whose only claim to fame is that they are endorsed by the basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

As best as I can tell, these shoes have no particular magic powers that can give the wearer extraordinary basketball skills. If you were to click your heels together while wearing your fresh Air Jordans, you would just end up looking like a moron as you waited to be transported back home from the land of Oz. (Come to think of it, any person of average height could become a basketball god in a land full of three-foot Munchkins. Probably get a sweet endorsement deal in the process.)

As a point of reference, my personal shoe inventory consists of a few pair of American made dress shoes (hard to find these days,) a pair of American made Red Wing work boots, and several pair of Chinese made Merrell casual shoes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I consider shoes a practical necessity. They need to keep my feet warm in the winter, dry in the summer and be a suitable coverup so I do not expose my hairy toes to children and other sensitive people. Shoes should be comfortable, appropriate for the occasion, and a good value.

I wear my Merrells almost every day and they are indeed comfortable, durable and stylish. (Some may disagree with the stylish part, but I think they are quite contemporary.) The best part is, my Merrells cost me a fraction of the price of a pair of Air Jordans, I didn’t have to wait in line to buy them, and no one had to get pepper sprayed or go to jail just to complete the sale. Oh, and my family was in good hands while I made my purchase.

Don’t get me wrong. Nike makes high quality shoes and the company is completely within its rights to charge whatever price the market will bear. What confuses me to no end are the antics displayed by Air Jordon customers whenever a significant new model is released. While they are completely free to spend their money as they see fit, just don’t go nuts in the process.

Air Jordan customers should take a cue from the Apple fans who will wait peacefully in line while camped out for days waiting for the latest and greatest iphone/ipad/i-don’t-care product to be unveiled so they may spend their parent’s money/spouses nest egg/children’s college fund on the latest and greatest.

Having closely studied the situation, I have come up with a completely unscientific theory as to why Air Jordan customers riot while Apple customers remain placid: A new installment of the Air Jordan franchise comes out once a month. Updated Apple products are released only twice a year or so.

The sneaker crowd spends way too much time together.

Copyright © 2011 by Doug Couch
All Rights Reserved

Another Christmas Story

As a reporter covering the social services beat in suburban Atlanta, I wrote about Meals On Wheels needing drivers, the local battered women’s shelter in desperate need of a new roof, and efforts to gather up basic school supplies each Fall for disadvantaged children. I saw the need and I saw the frustration in the eyes of social workers who were desperately trying to fill that need with dwindling resources while working in the sometimes emotionless environment of some government services agency.

Pretty depressing stuff, when witnessed every day at the street level. The upside, and a grasp on the emotions, was the sense of accomplishment when an article would inspire someone to deliver those lunches, pay for a new roof or buy some Hello Kitty back packs. Christmas would be the one time of the year where everything came together and my faith in humanity blossomed as the spirit of giving poured forth from the community.

Complete strangers played Santa Claus as they bought toys for children known only to their parents and the Marines. Turkeys were donated and local food pantry charities finally had the provisions needed so the Tiny Tims and Bob Cratchits could have a proper meal at Christmas. It warmed my heart to see my community get so involved.

Much of the Yuletide donations are focused on children for one obvious reason: This is Santa’s time to shine and no child should miss out on a toy at Christmas because her parents lack the resources. Foster children especially tug at the heart strings. Many of them never see Christmas in the same home two years in a row.

The U.S. Marine’s “Toys For Tots” campaign does a tremendous job helping out Santa, and sadly, they never have enough toys to meet the need. This year, a new phenomenon has emerged of people secretly paying off the K-Mart and Walmart toy layaway tabs of low-income families. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

For five years, I saw it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yes, there is bad and there is ugly in how our government and our society treats those in need. The bad is government programs that fall woefully short in providing basic services and subsistence-level income. The ugly is the way Americans disrespect, disenfranchise and dismiss our elderly.

They have Social Security, they have Medicare, they have senior centers and handicap-capable buses to transport them to their medical care. What so many of them do not have is enough disposable income to cover the co-payment for their prescription drugs. (Maybe we need a “Meds for Granny” campaign next Christmas.) What many of them do not have is someone, besides their ancient cat, to wish them a Merry Christmas.

Many other societies around the world actually honor and respect their elders. Their seniors are seen as the source of much wisdom and and revered for their traditions. We, on the other hand, have abandoned our elderly mothers in airport concourses, stuffed them away in nursing homes or hired someone to look after them – all in an effort to keep the old folks from affecting our life style.

Most of our senior citizens will spend this Christmas surrounded by loving family members. Some will not even know what day it is as they waste away in some elder care facility. A few will become the objects of road rage because they took too long after the light changed. Why the hurry? December 25th will be just like any other day, only filled with bittersweet memories of Christmases past.

If you know a senior citizen who has no family, take a few minutes out of your busy Christmas this year and drop by. Maybe bring a tin of cookies and an honest intent to spend a little time with them. Who knows, you too may pass this way.

Copyright © 2011 by Doug Couch
All Rights Reserved

An Old Fashioned Southern Christmas

Movies like “Holiday Inn” and “White Christmas” have helped shape our image of an American Christmas. The truth is, most of the country rarely, if ever sees snow during the season and the holiday traditions are as varied as our people.

Extended families gather at different times, some on Christmas Eve and some as much as several days later. In some families, Santa (See photo) wraps all the presents and in others, the Jolly Old Elf just spreads them out under the tree, resulting in a visual overload on Christmas morning for all the good little girls and boys.

Down South, our brothers and sisters near the Mason-Dixon line have a much better shot at a white Christmas than those in Florida. Once in a blue moon, North Georgia is blessed with snow on December 25th, but usually the best we can hope for is a cold drizzle. Not much good for sledding, and danged sorry raw material for building a Frosty.

As a child, my extended family always held a grand reunion at my maternal grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. Seeing how my mother had several siblings and they all had several children of their own, the annual gathering was quite a crowd, replete with youngsters hyped up in keen anticipation of Santa’s arrival later that night.

Gifts would be exchanged among my mother’s brothers and sisters while the grandchildren compared their wish lists and begged to go home for fear St. Nick’s impending appearance would catch them away and he would bypass the house due to a “not nestled snug in their beds” violation.

The highlight of the evening was my uncle’s fireworks display. I say display, but it was mostly a car trunk packed with explosive contraband that he had smuggled in from Alabama. Fireworks were (and still are) illegal in Georgia, so the older children and adults would seize the rare opportunity to light a fuse or two in a little pre-Christmas game of blow off your hand.

Grandma lived out in the country, so there was little chance that a neighbor would call the police just because someone had been disrespectful enough to shoot a sky rocket through their dog house. However, those were the days of real M-80s and Cherry Bombs, and invariably someone would toss one into the fireplace, thereby spreading a lot more than Christmas cheer around granny’s living room.

Following the evening of food, fun and scorched fingers, the candy-fueled, over-excited children would be carted off to their respective homes where they were read  “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” stuffed into their pajamas, thrust into their beds, and allowed to toss and turn like a Caesar’s salad until finally drifting off to sleep. In the wee hours of Christmas morning, I would occasionally hear strange noises emanating from the living room as Santa uttered unintelligible expletives while attempting to assemble a bicycle using inadequate tools.

Apparently, Mrs. Clause accompanied Santa on his rounds as I sometimes heard a female voice in the night reprimanding the old elf for his choice of adjectives. She kept calling him “Earl,” which must have been his middle name.

Christmas morning would begin with one of my siblings or myself waking up first, then rousing the others. Under strict orders from our parents, we would first stampede to their bedroom so they could go check to see if Santa had come. Following a cursory inspection of the living room by our father, we were allowed to enter where toy mayhem quickly ensued.

As a child, annual rumors spread around my school that the little Catholic children were required to get dressed and attend Mass on Christmas morning before they could open their presents. All the Protestant youngsters would hold little impromptu prayer meetings where they would offer up thanks to God that they were not born Catholic. (We could still pray in school back in the day.)

Whatever your faith, whatever your traditions, this Christmas morning be thankful that you live in the greatest country in the world where you can celebrate openly and in your own way, without fear or intimidation.

Copyright © 2011 by Doug Couch and “Observations From A Southern Outpost”
All Rights Reserved