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 bused 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.