Heat and eat

Friday, July 20, 2007

There's a law on my mother's side of the family that the second Saturday in August is the day of the family reunion.

I don't know who enacted that law. It has been in effect for more than 60 years that I know of. I suppose there was, in days gone by, some sense in having a reunion on the hottest day of the year, but I'll be danged if I can figure it out.

The date of the reunion actually predates our family get-together for the descendants and cousins of Hans and Millie Miller, my grandparents. The reunion used to be the same day as the graveyard cleaning day at the cemetery where five or six generations of Millers -- including Hans and Millie -- and Kings are buried on a hilltop overlooking Brushy Creek valley in the Ozarks over yonder. One version of the story (mine) is that one of my aunts, during World War II rationing, managed to bake a banana pie for the graveyard cleaning to impress her in-laws, the Miller girls. But at the potluck noon dinner, the pie was eaten by others before the Miller sisters could taste it. The next year the reunion was at Poston bridge on Big Creek, where it continued through my growing-up years.

In recent years, the reunion has been held at Sam A. Baker State Park in the shadow of Mudlick Mountain, where my grandmother's family lived for a while. So there is some familial connection there, though that doesn't explain the hot, humid timing.

This new generation -- sons and daughters and their children of my cousins -- knows too little of the family history or its traditions, other than the fact that Aunt Esther will always bring her famous chicken and dumplings and Aunt Edna (my mother) will bring her famous chicken dressing. They are the only aunts left. Kay, wife of cousin Jerry, will bring her famous fruit pies with berries from their farm. But most of the rest of the food spread out under the oak trees will be store-bought.

Store-bought!

If my mother or any of my aunts had brought store-bought food to a reunion when I was growing up, they would have left in shame, possibly never to return. Instead they brought big cardboard boxes filled with pots and dishes wrapped in bath towels to keep them warm. And ice chests full of sweet tea and lemonade and water. Huge bowls of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from their gardens.

When I hear a preacher talk about heaven and never-ending milk and honey (do preachers still talk about such things?), I wonder what imagery they'd use if they had been to a Miller family reunion.

Gathering together with large groups of people and enough food to feed an army is so much a part of human nature that it is impossible to imagine a time when food didn't bring people together: weddings, funerals, holidays, graduations, awarding of prizes, christenings, Holy Communion.

And politics. When I was a young reporter at the Kansas City Star, there was a judge in Clay County who had a huge barbecue on his farm every other year for all the Democrats running for office. In preparation, pits would be dug where coals from hickory logs would be topped with beef briskets and left to cook for hours. On the day of the picnic, thousands of people of every political stripe would show up -- on a hot summer day -- and gorge themselves on the best brisket I've ever eaten.

The "Out of the past" column in Thursday's paper this week recalled a "big barbecue and rally" at Bullock's Grove in New Madrid County 75 years ago where butchers slaughtered 60 hogs, 40 lambs and eight cattle. What a day that must have been.

In the early 1980s, when we were living in Maryville, Mo., an Albanian doctor practicing in Chicago opened a McDonald's in town. To thank his new friends, Doc Photos had a barbecue -- on a hot summer day -- in the field of a nearby farm. There, too, a pit was dug to hold hot coals, and on a spit turned two whole goats, imported from Chicago, which Doc Photos basted from early morning until late afternoon. Our sons were small at the time, but they still remember the "roast beast" we brought home wrapped in aluminum foil.

Hot summer days. Special food. Maybe it's just meant to be.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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