Despite the torrent of rain that fell a week ago Saturday I made my way to Mt. Pleasant, Texas, for the Smoky-Eyed BBQ Cookoff thanks to some gentle chiding by my neighbor Phil.
“Are you afraid of getting wet?” he asked after I expressed some doubt about attending a BBQ cookoff in the rain.
My first thought was to deny it.
My second was to admit it.
Well, yes, I said. The words stumbled out.
Yes, I am. I was a bit bolder on the second affirmation as I pictured myself totally drenched matched by a plate of equally soggy BBQ.
But there were reasons to go.
Phil was anxious to attend for reconnoiter purposes; he wanted to scope out a competition before he takes his first crack at being a contestant. And I didn’t want to miss out on a chance for all-you-can-eat BBQ .
I came around to the thought that there are worse things in life than getting waterlogged while eating BBQ so Phil’s prodding won out.
Two hours later, Phil, his wife, Marje, my friend Lloyd, and I arrived at the Mt. Pleasant Civic Center, a roofed, open-air facility with a sawdust covered dirt floor that had been transformed into a BBQ bonanza.
With Styrofoam plate, fork, knife, and napkin in hand we entered the fray.
I was grateful for the roof over our heads as we enjoyed our first round of BBQ because the light, very pleasant sprinkle of rain that had greeted us upon arrival and had lulled us into thinking that the worst of the rain was over turned into buckets.
And then I faced a dilemma.
At least half of the contestant booths were in an adjacent, uncovered field. A true sampling of the Smoky-Eyed BBQ cook-off would require that I venture from the cocoon of the covered pavilion.
The rain slowed for a moment. I took this as a sign to grab my umbrella and venture out.
But that which had beckoned me from my covering returned with a vengeance and it rained even harder than it had before.
Although I’ve spent my fair share of time this spring working to rid my yard of weeds the old-fashioned way, one weed at a time, lovingly tugged on till it gives up its grip on my soil, I was very thankful that someone had let them run amok in this Mt. Pleasant field prior to this very rainy day.
Clumps of weeds provided me with natural stepping-stones in the man-made lake that was forming between the open-field booths.
I returned to the pavilion only when my plate could bear no more of its brisket burden, leaping across what was now a small river between the field and the asphalt driveway.
There were 52 brisket contenders in this contest and I intended to taste them all.
When I added a pinch of potato salad here and a bit of pinto beans there, along with a rib or two, to my taste of brisket it was too much.
My stomach begged for mercy long before I had tasted half of the briskets.
It was somewhere in this round of tasting from the water-logged field that I thought I had hit upon the winner. I’ll never know though because I have no idea from whom I received the sample and we left before they announced the winner.
No worries. It was a mission-accomplished kind of day.
I had all the BBQ I could eat (and then some) and Phil got to experience his first BBQ cook off from the easy side of the smoker.
The torrent of rain continued as we left, but I had one more item to tick off my list before departing from this small East Texas town. I made my way back to Bodacious BBQ, my original stopping point for BBQ a couple of weeks prior.
The power was out as the rain had caused an outage at Bodacious and the surrounding area, but I managed to find and buy two more rounds of the best peanut brittle around. They calculated the sale with a hand-held calculator and we were on our way.
A handful of days ago I traveled to Mt. Pleasant, Texas, for a customer appointment.
The one and a half hour drive was a nice change of pace from my usual, crazy airport-airplane-car-rental-hotel-room-lug-the-suitcase around routine.
With a population of just under 15,000, Mt.Pleasant is definitely one small corner of Texas. I see that many people every day on I-635.
Here's what I like best about small towns and why I was jazzed about this visit: BBQ.
I had done my homework and knew that there were at least two BBQ places that were contenders for a lunchtime visit in Mt. Pleasant. Pat, my easy-going colleague on this journey, didn’t seem to mind that by eight AM and even before my first cup of Starbucks I had our lunch fare identified.
Of course, I let her pick between the two.
Bodacious BBQ it was; an easy choice. It was barely a stone’s throw from our client’s office and he highly recommended it even though he wasn’t able to join us.
It was the early side of lunch when we arrived and with just a couple of other cars in the lot we snagged a parking spot by the front door; thankfully so because we arrived during a gullywasher, one of the many unleashed on North Texas this spring.
We were slightly damp as we wound our way though the food line – most of the sides are made fresh daily on premises at Bodacious Bar-B-Q – and settled in a booth. The place was immaculately clean and tastefully decorated with newspaper clippings of significant happenings, some dating to the early 1900s.
The only other customer in the place at that time struck up a conversation with us after he wondered aloud why I was taking a picture of my food.
It’s a habit, I said.
We chatted off and on throughout the meal with him about the kinds of topics that are easy lanes of conversations between strangers in a small town – the food, where we were from, our reason for being in Mt. Pleasant during this most unpleasant storm, etc.
The brisket, which is the standard by which I judge the quality of all BBQ joints, was a bit on the dry side even with the sauce. So it was a tad disappointing. The sausage, however, was outstanding with a spicy, yet not hot, goodness in every bite. Don’t know where they source it from – wish I did.
And then there was dessert.
As is customary in these types of places, I chose my dessert at the same time I was trying to decide between the ribs and sausage. I picked up a nice chunk of what looked to be homemade peanut brittle. There was no fancy packaging, just a simple, small piece of paper identifying the maker as a small church in Gilmer, Texas.
As a peanut brittle lover, my mom makes it, I couldn’t resist giving it a go.
Crunchy, not chewy, with just the proper amount of stick-to-your-teeth-peanutty-and-sugary goodness. Yes, heavenly.
From the newspaper clippings on the wall, to the fabulous sausage, and the peanut brittle treat, I haven't had a meal in another BBQ place like this one. That is a huge part of the charm and appeal for me.
While the homogenization of the American food scene surges forward with Chili's, Denny's, and Applebee's becoming the Wal-Mart's of the restaurant industry, individually-owned BBQ businesses remain in small towns sprinkled around the states mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line.
BBQ joints like Bodacious may be one of the final mom-and-pop-shop frontiers.
Thankfully so. I would despise the day where my only choice for BBQ would be a deja vu experience of the BBQ place I was in the week before.
So I salute these defenders of individuality and creativity where the BBQ is as unique as each owner's personality. My tastebuds are thankful for the adventure.
My goal is to sample as many of these family-owned oases in Texas as I can in my lifetime.
I’m headed back to Mt. Pleasant June 16th for the Smoky-Eyed BBQ Cook-off benefiting local charities. For just $7 I’ll be able to sample all the BBQ I can eat. Bargain!
Only if, I suppose, I don’t make a stop at Bodacious BBQ and fill up on peanut brittle beforehand.
I never had a sweet tooth as kid. This was much to my mother’s chagrin I’m sure.
She would pour forth as much or more effort on her desserts as the main dish. Sometimes I would indulge in a forkful or two of the ooey gooey sweet ending, but more often than not I would take an extra helping of vegetables or a piece of bread instead.
She was never at a loss for takers though. My older brother began every meal by asking what was for dessert and still does. Some things never change.
Sweets will never rank high on my list of cooking or eating priorities although there is something quite alluring about brownies just out of the oven. So my dessert repertoire is less than stellar. I’m content to throw together some tossed fruit with a dab of whipped cream on top as a subtle finish.
I would like to develop more skill in this area, but for now I’m content with a handful of standby recipes, mostly classic with a twist or two – amaretto cheesecake, amaretto bundt cake, (I seem to have a thing for amaretto), and key lime pie.
The true classic is pound cake.
My favorite recipe is simple and the ingredient list aligns with the staples that I’m likely to have on hand. In a pinch, it is easy to whip together without a trip to the grocery store.
In keeping with the request "bring something sweet," pound cake was my contribution to a BBQ with friends on Sunday afternoon. We enjoyed it warm, just out of the oven after a feast of ribs, brisket, beans, corn bread, and pasta salad. The simplicity of the pound cake taste and texture was a nice finish to a full-flavored meal.
Ariel and I each had a slice of left over pound cake for breakfast on Monday morning. While she waited for me to join her at the table, she got creative with the fruit and bacon. She’s going to be twenty years old this summer, but some things just never change. And I'm glad they don't.
Buttery Pound Cake 2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar, if desired
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar and butter in large mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping down bowl often, until creamy (2 to 3 minutes). Continue beating, adding eggs one at a time, until well mixed (2 to 3 minutes). Add sour cream, milk, and vanilla. Continue beating, scraping bowl often, until well mixed (1 to 2 minutes).
Reduce speed to low. Add flour and salt; beat until just moistened.
Spoon batter into greased and floured 12-cup bundt or 10-inch tube pan. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes our clean. Cool 15 minutes; remove from pan. Cool completely. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.
Sandra’s Cooking Notes: - This recipe is printed on the back of a Land O Lakes butter carton that’s been hanging around my recipe collection for years. I made it for the first time three years ago. My family loves it and so did my Sunday night BBQ fellow diners. You can also find it here.
- The cake stands alone with a little powdered sugar on top or you can serve it with whipped cream (please don't by the fake stuff) and fruit.
As a child my favorite piece of playground equipment was the merry-go-round. I would grab on, run as fast as I could, jump on, and then hang on for dear life especially if the merry-go-round had the momentum of several kids giving it a go.
With every dizzying rotation it was a battle; gravity versus me. Sometimes gravity won; sometimes I triumphed making my way to the center and standing triumphantly.
Transition to adult life. It’s busy, hectic, and fast. Traffic. Alarms. Appointments. Meetings. Deadlines. Plane schedules. Rental cars. Rental car shuttles. Airport security lines. Double-booked calendars. Email and the incessant cell phone. Constant noise. Radios. Loudspeakers. Slot machine’s dinging (that one’s random, but I’m in Vegas at the moment).
Sometimes it’s too much. And I feel like that little girl on the merry-go-round losing my grip, one knuckle, two knuckle, three knuckes. Gone!
Except I never really fall off, just down. And without my help the merry-go-round of life just keeps on spinning.
Yet there are moments for me, spent mostly in the kitchen and around the dining table with friends and family when I feel I’m defying the gravitational pull of the fast life.
Yes, I need more of these slow moments, see the smile?
A year and a half ago I joined Slow Food – an international organization with 80,000 members who share my sentiment. Founded in 1989, Slow Food’s mission is to revive the joy of eating with an emphasis on taste, promote diversity in our food chain, and link artisanal producers with consumers.
It’s a growing movement. The Slow Food Dallas chapter now has more than 200 members.
It takes a slower life to reconnect with our tastebuds, understand where our food comes from, and care about how our food choices affect our planet and ourselves.
So I joined with eight other Slow Food Dallas members for a communal supper this past Saturday night, each of us contributing a dish to complement an Italian-themed meal.
My contribution to the meal was the antipasta: marinated chickpeas, peppered, sliced salami alongside sliced parmigana reggiano, and Lucca-Style Roasted Olives.
My dinner mates’ contributions were a green salad served in individual homemade parmesan crisp bowls, “Braised Pork to Taste Like Wild Boar,” white cannelloni beans with rosemary, and homemade panna cotta with hazelnut praline caramel sauce, and bit of violin music ala Ariel between the main course and dessert.
It felt like we took a step back in time with food, music, and fellowship.
The supper was slow, the conversation engaging, and the food divine.
And on one more evening I triumphed.
I beat back everything that is fast about my life to stand triumphantly and serenely in the middle of the merry-go-round.
Cook the olive oil and garlic cloves in an ovenproof skillet over moderate heat until the cloves begin to sizzle and carmelize slightly. Add the thyme sprigs and let them sizzle in the oil for about 30 seconds. Add the olives and stir until they are hot throughout, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the orange zest.
Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake, stirring occasionally, until the olives start to soften, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve warm.
Sandra’s Cooking Notes: - This is Michael Chiarello’s recipe from his book, Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking.
- If the pork recipe sounds intriguing it can be found in Marlene De Blasi's “A Thousand Days in Tuscany.” I’ve never had wild boar so I can’t compare, but the flavors made my tastebuds dance.
- The rest of the evening's photos can be found here.
Having grown up with a mother who was a solid southern cook, there was nothing remotely French about the food on our family dining table except for the fries, usually presented with a steak masterfully grilled by my father.
Never venturing far from their Southern cuisine roots my parents rarely dined out, and if they did it was never French. Mexican, absolutely, French, no way.
As captain of my own personal cuisine expedition in adulthood, I dismissed French fare as expensive (anything French is expensive), form over function (beautiful presentation over fill me up), amazingly difficult (it must be), and mysterious (besides croissants, just exactly what was French food?).
Then I booked a trip to Paris so I sought to better understand this baffling cuisine.
It’s as big as a family Bible and is considered a holy book in some cooking circles; certainly it’s a classic. I lugged all 3.2 lbs. of it with me on a recent business trip and pulled it out on the plane. The man sitting next to me asked if I was a chef.
Ah, ha! I wasn’t alone in my twisted thinking that only those with formal culinary training can reckon with French cuisine!
As I read, absorbed, and explored its 752 pages, that which I had once considered beyond reach of my simple, American kitchen skills seemed surprisingly doable and delectable.
With “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as their guide, Ariel and Emily (below) took on the task of cooking dinner on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago. It was the first run anyone had made at French cuisine in my kitchen.
There was a buzz of activity in the kitchen. And, oh, the aroma that wafted up the stairs that drew me down the stairs. My tastebuds danced in anticipation and were not disappointed when we gathered around the dining room table.
Flavorful, Flavorful. Flavorful. And delightful.
It was a steak and potatoes night French style – “Biftek Saute Bercy and Puree De Pommes De Terre a L’Ail” – simply translated - “Pan-broiled steak with Shallot and White Wine Sauce and Garlic Mashed Potatoes.” English peas flavored with rosemary rounded out the meal and made for a beautiful presentation.
It was like Julia’s words leaping to life from the pages of her book, “’Mastering the Art of French Cooking’” is just what the title says. It is how to produce really wonderful food – food that tastes good, looks good, and is a delight to eat.”
My standard for garlic mashed potatoes was ratcheted up several notches that evening; it’s going to have to be Julia’s way or no way in my kitchen.
No longer baffling or mysterious, my affection and respect for French cuisine began when the first crumbs of a crusty baguette fell to my plate in Paris. With Julia's help, I'm looking forward to a life long love affair.
Puree De Pommes De Terre A L’ail (Garlic Mashed Potatoes)
2 heads garlic (about 30 cloves)
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup boiling milk
1/4 teaspoon Salt
pinch of pepper
2 1/2 lb. baking potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons whipping cream
4 tablespoons minced parsley
Separate the garlic cloves. Drop into boiling water, and boil two minutes. Drain. Peel
Cook the garlic slowly with 4 tablespoon of butter for about 20 minutes or until very tender but not browned. Blend in the flour and stir over low heat until it froths with the butter for 2 minutes without browning. Off heat, beat in the boiling milk and 1/4 tablespoon salt and pinch of pepper. Boil, stirring, for one minute. Rub the sauce through a sieve or puree it in a blender. Simmer for 2 minutes more.
Peel and quarter the potatoes. Drop in boiling salted water to cover, and boil until tender. Drain immediately and put through a potato ricer. Place the hot puree in a saucepan and beat with a spatula or spoon for several minutes over moderate heat to evaporate moisture. As soon as the puree begins to form a film on the bottom of the pan, remove from the heat and beat in 4 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time. Beat in salt and pepper to taste.
Shortly before serving, beat the hot garlic sauce vigorously into the hot potatoes. Beat in the cream by spoonfuls, but do not thin out the puree too much. Beat in the parsley. Correct the seasoning if needed.
Sandra’s Cooking Notes: - I’ve taken some liberties with Julia’s recipe. The ingredient list is complete but I’ve pared down her instructions. Almost overwhelming at first read, she mixes excruciating details of the size and type of pots, pans, and cooking instruments along with the basic recipe instructions. But remember that her original audience was the 1961 American cook and you’ll love her for the attention to detail.
- This dinner is a fond memory. It was the last meal Emily (pictured below) prepared in my kitchen before she returned to Utah, her home state. After she finished her nursing degree at Baylor this spring, her family, and her first nursing job beckoned her home.
- Hannah and I had a lovely time in Paris. It is a beautiful city filled with never-ending wonder at each twist and turn of its lovely streets. If you’re interested in seeing our photos, click here for a video montage.