The Payoff

Yesterday was a brew day here – my husband and his friend John brewed up a 20 gallon batch of pale ale, fixed the spigot connection on the side of the house, and played whiffle ball sometimes with the kids.

Brew day has become more than just a day of making beer.  It’s also a Cook Really Good Food For Lunch Day.  Or a Show Off Your Most Recent Best Recipe For Something Day.  And occasionally a Cook The Spiciest Food You Can And See Who Is Man Enough To Eat It Without Crying Day.

Brew day also fluctuates between a simple, two-man brewing affair and a three to five man brewing event.  It started with just Bill and John.  And then it grew, as good things, nurtured and tended, will do.

Anyway, yesterday was a kind of relaxing, old home week kind of brew day – just Bill and John.  Not that it’s stressful when the other guys are there, but when it’s just John, time sort of slows…it meanders back and forth…it spreads out like a blanket on the beach and gets comfortable.

So besides the beer thing, there is, like I started to say, the food thing.  I don’t know when it really started, but food consumed on brew day is not just a couple of grinders ordered from Jersey Mike’s.  (Although that’s not a bad thing.)  Brew day is now about killer fish tacos with Red Thai Curry Paste and freshly made guacamole.  Or Baby Buffalo Ball Sandwiches and Onion Rings.  It’s a time to try out new recipes, or to show off improved favorites.

Anyway, for yesterday’s Brew Day Bill slow-cooked three racks of ribs on the grill.

Here they are around 8:00 in the morning – seasoned and ready to go:


And here they are, five hours later, ready to eat:


Just take a look at that – the falling-apart yumminess.

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Alex ate 7 ribs.  He loves them.

Now, ribs don’t require a ton of work in terms of slicing and dicing and mixing and stirring.  Just strip away the sinew on the underside of the rack and massage in some rub and they’re pretty well set.  (Bill usually makes his own rub, but this time we used Montreal Steak Seasoning, which was just fine.)

It’s the smoking, the grilling, and the tending of the coals that takes some focusing.  These are cooked on a charcoal (Weber) grill with smoke.  The smoke, in this case, was from some raw cedar Bill had left over from something he made (I don’t remember what).  The ribs are stacked in a single pile and rotated throughout the duration of the cooking, so that they’re all equally exposed to the smoke and can all develop that gorgeous red/brown color.  And, the temperature inside the grill needs to stay right around 225 degrees F.  That’s the tricky part.  Monitoring the temperature, adding just enough new coals to keep the temperature constant but not so many that the little arrow on the oven thermometer skyrockets.  These actually went up to 275 at some point because Bill was doing beer things and hadn’t checked the thermometer in a while.  But though they were a tiny bit drier at the ends, the ribs were still fabulous.

And while that was going on outside, I was making a few other dishes inside.  A Thai rice salad and a peasant-style dish with broccoli rabe and bread and chickpeas.  I’ll be posting both recipes later this week.

The recipes themselves aren’t the point of this post.  The point – as I meander about before getting to it – comes from a question John posed to me while I was prepping the side dishes or typing the recipes into the drafts for later posts.  (And here’s where I’m going to go rambling all over the place, so buckle up.)

John came into the kitchen and told me about a dining experience he and his wife had had recently.  Basically it boiled down to this – their meals were just…okay.  Nothing special.  Not terrible, not exciting.  Just…adequate.  Meanwhile, over at another table, there was a group of people basically raving and exclaiming over every dish they were served.  And John and his wife watched this going on…and they started to compare…and discuss…and ponder.

Those people – the ones enjoying their meal – were perfectly happy and delighted with the food they received. 

John and his wife were not unhappy with theirs, but they were not…excited by the food.

And so – does that matter?  And if it does…why?  Why seek out the more exciting flavors?  Why step beyond?  Why try to recreate or improve upon the foods we cook and eat?  Why not just be content with basic correctly cooked meals that are what they say they are and no more?

What is the payoff? 

What makes some of us delve into cookbooks and magazines and food blogs, perusing ingredients the way someone else might obsess over baseball stats.  Why do we experiment with flavor combinations…new ingredients…better equipment…why do we hone our cooking techniques…learn to whip egg whites to the correct peak…drizzle truffle oil on our pasta…hone our knife skills…Why?  And why are there other people who don’t?

Am I better off, in some way, because I can both detect and appreciate the hint of tamarind in a 17 ingredient hot sauce?  Why spend time measuring out tiny amounts of ingredients, chopping vegetables and cooking and pureeing the whole mess when I could just as easily have picked up something hot and spicy at the store? 

Am I happier because I do all that?  Well…yes.  I am. 

Am I happier than someone who wouldn’t do all that?  Someone who would buy something hot and spicy and save themself some time and effort?  No, I’m probably not.

I guess we just all have our own thing.  Our own something that may seem unnecessary and a waste of time to someone else, but which is, at the core, a very necessary part of our living experience.

I guess it’s partly a creative outlet.  Cooking – even if you’re following someone else’s recipe to the letter – is still a creative process.  You are still the one bridging the gap between ingredient and meal.  You may have been following someone else’s instructions, but still, you did the work.  You performed this labor of love.

But for some of us, I guess the creativity goes beyond the basic level.  Not only do we want to put food on the table, but we also want – or need – to take it a step further.  We want and/or need to see what would happen if we, say, substituted leeks for onions in this dish.  Used pork instead of chicken.  Chinese five spice powder instead of cinnamon.  What if?

I told John he needs to see the movie Ratatouille.  Yeah, it’s animated and all that, but still – it’s an excellent movie.  And it kind of relates to this whole issue of being content with what is, and wanting to discover what else it could be.  I explained to John the basic premise of the rat who isn’t content to eat garbage…who is excited and inspired by flavors and combinations of flavors…and yes, again, I am talking about an animated film originally intended for kids.  But still.  It’s relevant.

Why care about Meyer lemons and Key limes when regular ol’ lemons and limes are probably less expensive and easier to get?  Why make a croissant when you can buy one?  And if you’re buying, then why buy freshly made croissants at a specialty bakery when the frozen heat-and-serve kind at the grocery store are way cheaper?  Why?

Because…for some of us…those particular little things matter.  It’s passion.  It’s love.  It’s obsession.  It’s inspiration.  It’s joy.  It’s accomplishment.  It’s creativity.  Productivity.  Fun. 

And it just can’t be helped.  It’s who we are, I think.  Whoever we are.  It applies to everything, not just food or cooking.  For many of us, there are certain things, certain areas of our lives, that we cannot leave alone, and cannot ignore.  These are the fires within us.  We hunger…we wonder…we lust…we crave…we cannot sit on the sidelines.  We are not satisfied unless we can touch that magical "IT" with our minds and hands.  Until we can participate, heart and mind and spirit, and feel that sense of accomplishment afterward.  Big or small, I think that is the payoff.

Your thoughts?



4 thoughts on “The Payoff

  1. Weirdly I finally watched “Ratatouille” last night, and really enjoyed it.

    Then I went to bed and finished reading Dr Andrew Weil’s “Optimum Nutrition”, and he said almost exactly the same thing.

    And now Barefoot Kitchen Witch?

    It’s a good-food-prepared-lovingly conspiracy!

  2. It’s funny, I had sort of a same moment this weekend at the grocery store. We were getting fruits and veggies and I was smelling everything, and it’s like everything smelled better than usual. The strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, ground cherries were out of this world! Then we went into the spice aisle and I flipped over some green anise seeds and then saffron and I thought: “am I nuts?”. I love food, buying it, preparing it and I do think it matters. The love and care we put into our dishes, it shows. Yes, we could buy everything ready made, but it wouldn’t be as satisfying. 🙂

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