Monday, September 07, 2020

Pop Pop the Grill Master- Labor Day Memory


Inspired by Tootsie's Texas Cookin' last night on Netfix, I dreamed I was sitting on the backyard picnic table talking to my Pop Pop while he basted the ribs, chicken, and pork chops like he did almost every Saturday while I was growing up.

Madison Leonard Almon was a very talented and charismatic man. Champion golfer, WW2 B-52 blister gunner who flew 32 missions in the Pacific theater, and could do almost anything better than anyone else... including backyard barbecue.

I was blessed in my childhood to live literally 1 street away from my grandparents. I could walk there in 4 minutes, run there in 2, and bicycle there in about a minute ....downhill! It was on my way to the Handi-pak on Rugby Ave. where I could get a comic book and Mountain Dew for about 45 cents.

As long as I could remember almost every Saturday morning, Pop Pop would start before the sun rose, to prepare food for friends and family. I would go there as soon as I woke up and he would always get on to me and asked what took me so long to get there.

He told me the story about building his backyard patio and barbecue pit with his brother, Fuzz. In my memory, it was a large level back yard adjacent to an unpaved alley that ran behind all the houses on that street. There were towering tomato stakes next to his large round compost pile. 

The patio had been built away from the house and was pieced together from flat gray river stones which supported a wooden picnic style table and a large round canopy umbrella that leaned slightly in a hole that had been cut in the table. It wasn't large enough to cover the entire table, but was plenty to protect Pop Pop, his radio, and cigarettes if a Saturday shower threatened the day.

The grill itself was a built from hand, modest yellow brick rectangle at the far end of the patio. it wasn't fancy at all by today's standards. Just a brick edifice that opened to a large metal grate on top and carried the bricks onward for a small 'chimney' or vent.

He and Fuzz originally built it as a wood burning pit, but the two 'engineered' an upgrade. Pop Pop was a longtime worker for Alagasco, so running the gas line was easy. Fuzz was a welder and furniture maker, and he fashioned this large heavy wire grating that could hold large cuts of meat without any concern.

It was a gas grill with two large burners under the lava rocks. But Pop Pop kept a metal plate over that to keep the heat consistent and for hickory chips that continuously soaked in water. The smoke from those chips and the drippings from years of previous mastery were just small parts of the unique flavor that made his grilling better than any other I have ever experienced.

I'm sure that it was the largest gas grill in all of East Lake and would hold its own to any gas grill by today's standards.

Before I move into his cooking procedure, I need to talk about the periphery events that made this such a magical experience. As I got a little older, Pop Pop decided to use the morning to teach me some skills.

One day I got there and he had an old rotary, reel push mover. He challenged me to see if I could cut the grass... thick zoysia. I pushed it for about 30 minutes and my brother finished up when he arrived. The mower became part of my Saturday routine, and it was a measuring stick for my growing up. Over the course of a few years, I got where I could cut his entire yard, front and back and he would pay me if he thought I did a good job.

Another important skill I acquired in Pop Pop's backyard was learning to shoot his pellet gun. He was the first to teach me how to sight a target and he placed a trash can lid on he back door to his basement with paper plates that were the targets.

It was his main arsenal to take out the squirrels who chose to trespass on his super large tomatoes. He didn't have the gun out every Saturday, but it was on of my favorites. We also threw horse shoes, chipped golf balls, and played dominoes when the weather was bad.

One final periphery accompanying the smell of hickory chips, grilled meat, and Jim Beam was either big band music or Leonard's Losers.... the pick 'em radio show where the host would finish a homespun analysis of each college game with the infamous- "Leonard's loser, in a close one.... Arkansas" or Ole Miss, or LSU, or anyone else who played Alabama that day. 

My mom, grandmother, and my aunts stayed at the house preparing for the large feast later on in the day. We had the best potato salad, baked beans, breads, and casseroles in America. Granny's pound cake was a dream as well. One special Saturdays, we took turns churning home made peach Ice Cream strapped in an old, rusty aluminum cooler decayed by the turning and rock salt.

But Pop Pop was the main course. 

He did his best to pass along the process to me. 

He took me to the special meat market where he tried to point out the best way to select the pork chops. This market also offered rabbit and quail which were non-Saturday specialties in his kitchen.

Just before dawn, the slow cooked mastery would begin. Pop Pop had a basting sauce for cooking and a home made barbecue sauce that would be added just before the finished meats were taken in for consumption.

I was there early enough on a few occasions to mix up the 'secret sauces' myself. 

The basting sauce was water, white vinegar, salt, and pepper. That's all. But he lavished it on the meats throughout the day using a small mop brush.

The barbecue sauce was a little more complicated: ketchup, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, spicy mustard, a little hot sauce, pepper, salt, that he would reduce on the stove until there was a good consistency. He never measured anything, just added stuff. Every now and then, he didn't like it and would pour in a few other store bought sauces to make it legit.

These 'recipes' are nothing new.... nothing special... the magic is in the temperature, time, and tender care.

Pop Pop cooked them all day- slow cookin'! He sat out by that pit for hours, telling stories, pouring drinks, while turning ribs, chops, and hotdogs. He would turn the meat, dab the basting sauce, and sit down. He was about as content during those times as any human can be.

There were special days. He beat a neighbor arm wrestling one day. And he caught the neighbor down the street cooking some of his grill in the oven!

There was a day I ate too many pork chops and he scolded me in front of everyone. Other than that, I usually got in trouble for not eating enough!

But it all seems to morph into one day. One beautiful time of nostalgia.

About eating time, the entire neighborhood seemed to show up. It was loud from lips full of liquor, it was chaotic and fragmented, it was an event like no other. After eating, we would watch football on TV or take a nap.

That night, we ate leftovers.

And the next Saturday, we would do it all again!

I'm sure this is a part of Americana and memories in the millions.... but Pop Pop was the king of it all!

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