musings: the day my life changed

Once upon a time, a boy was watching TV in his living room while the snow softly fell outside his home in a quiet Baltimore suburb. While flipping channels, he stopped to watch the end of a NASCAR race being held someplace sunny and warm. Suddenly the screen showed a crash, with one car ending up head on into the wall, and the next thing he knew, the car’s driver was dead. The boy thought, “Hey! People die in this sport! I wonder what will happen next week?”. And so began that boy’s love affair with stock car racing.

That’s basically the gist of it, how the boy started watching NASCAR. I was with him that day when Dale Earnhardt died; we had comfortably ensconced ourselves on the sofa bed in our living room with the dog and multiple blankets. i don't mean to sound flippant, for someone did die that day in an awful way, but that really was the moment the boy's love affair with the sport began. For the longest time I couldn’t understand the boy's fascination with it at all. It just seemed so un-him. His reasoning was because during the football off-season there was nothing else to watch on Sunday, and hey did you know people can die??

Years passed, and his fascination grew. I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand the appeal of a bunch of grown men flooring it and hanging a left; "This is boring as hell", I would think. The boy dragged j and I to an October 2006 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and I remember thinking DEAR GOD I hope I don’t get shown on TV or run into anybody I know, because that would totally tarnish my image and I would be mortified. And if asked what I did this past weekend, I WILL NOT mention that I sat on a hard metal bleacher seat sweating my ass off surrounded by a bunch of shirtless rednecks tossing back Bud Lights shouting WOOOOOO while watching cars flooring it and hanging lefts.

I’ve slowly grown an appreciation to it. I attribute this to all those Sundays i've sat on the couch in the living room, trying to tune out the TV while doing something else. A lot of it sunk in unwillingly, subconsciously. The next thing I knew, I was arguing with the boy about Hendrick, about Goodyear tires, about his love for Tony Stewart (whom he now dislikes), about his great love for Dale Earnhardt Jr (whom he now Despises with a capital D), etc… The big turning point for me, the moment I realized i was a fan, was that weekend last October when we camped in the infield at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and I suddenly got It. Hard to explain what that It is – it’s a combination of fierce fan loyalty, the bad boy image that some drivers have, and the sport being rather dangerous. Bad boys and danger are always appealing, are they not? That’s why chicks like guys with bikes; not only did your mother warn you against them, but they are so alluring and attractive.

Last Friday I found myself reading Wikipedia entries for about 4 hours straight – Wikipedia does have that ability to totally suck you in; you start reading one thing and next thing you know you know you’ve wasted a perfectly good afternoon. Except by the end of the afternoon I found myself knowing tons of NASCAR trivia. You know what’s the most fascinating thing to me about NASCAR from the beginning? It’s not the drivers (although I do have a soft spot for one or two of those bad boys). It’s drafting. And what the hell is drafting, you ask? It’s all about physics. i love math and physics. I’m not going to waste any of your time telling you all about it, but urge you to go to Wikipedia and look it up and find out who “discovered” it during a race. Drafting is also why geese fly in V-formation, something I’ve wondered about for years. I friggin’ love watching geese fly. I always wondered what they squawked on about, why they flew that way, and who designated the guy in front to be the leader. do they draw straws? did he lose a bet?

Anyway, I digress. You’re probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with food. I’m getting there.

About a week and a half ago, our buddy Ken mentioned he’d be smoking a brisket that upcoming weekend, so the boy said he’d smoke a pork butt and maybe we could get together to watch the race being held on Saturday night (sometimes races take place on Saturdays due to holidays or whatnot). Somehow during the course of the week, the boys came up with the idea of having a “smoke-off”, and next thing I knew we were organizing a full on competition. It was dubbed the Darlington Duel, as there were two main contenders in the smoke-off (the boy and Ken), and the race was taking place in Darlington, SC. The boy planned on making Brunswick Stew (with pork butt and chicken) and St Louis-style ribs, while Ken would make beef brisket and turkey legs. These four items would pit against each other and a winner would be announced, with the prize being bragging rights. We invited several of our friends, with Ken and MA hosting the event at their place. The boys named their dishes after NASCAR phrases. NASCAR has its own special descriptive language – there are whole websites out there devoted to them. you go take a look-see through Google.

MA and I were later complaining about how the boys made up the menu and the wives ended up making all the side dishes. I found myself making two different barbecue sauces while stuck on a call at 2 am (I’m a firm believer in multitasking, plus it helped keep me awake), all while keeping an eye on the pork butt which was smoking away into the night. The sides were: corn salad, coleslaw, cheddar and candied bacon cornbread, a salad that one of MAs neighbors made with lettuce he’d grown in his yard. I also made David Lebovitz’s candied bacon ice cream, and the boy made Bananas Foster. I might have forgotten one or two of the side dishes, as there was a ton of food.

So who won, you ask? Let's watch this and see. The boy’s on the left, Ken in the middle, and MA reading the verdict.

I don’t have recipes for the beans, the brisket, or the turkey legs (those were Ken and MAs). and since this post is getting ridiculously long, i'll leave the cornbread and rib recipes for the next post.

Brunswick Stew:
Pretty much follow the recipe on that link (we did not use the vegetable gumbo mix), and tweak it at the end to get the heat you want. we tweaked it to get the layers of flavor that appealed to us, mainly more Worcestershire and added hot sauce.

we smoked a chicken to use in this recipe and injected it into the breast and thigh with a mixture of the juice of two lemons and about a half cup of olive oil. set your smoker to 225 degrees F, and soak some wood chips (flavor of your choice) in some beer of your choice (i think we used Guinness and Miller Lite because that's what we have on hand pretty much all of the time). rub any remaining lemon/oil mixture on the outside of the chicken (or just oil it if you ran out), and liberally salt and pepper it all over. when the smoker is ready, toss in the chicken to smoke for about an hour per pound. you'll want to take internal temperature readings; when the chicken is fully smoked, it should read 165 degrees F in the breast. we smoked this first and then removed it to rest on a cutting board, and smoked the pork separately. when the chicken is cool, pull the skin off and discard it, and with your hands, pull all the meat off of the bones into shredded bite sized pieces. set aside until ready to use in the stew.

for the pulled pork used in the stew, get yourself a pork butt, approximately 3 lbs or so (it will reduce in weight while cooking; you might have a hard time finding less than a 5 lb pork butt; if that's the case, smoke it all and have pulled pork sandwiches for leftovers). cover it liberally with the dry rub of your choice - we make up a mason jar of this Magic Rub and use that liberally. make up a batch of this East Carolina mop toss that into your smoker which has been preheated to 225 degrees F. this took about 10 hours. every couple of hours, baste the meat with the East Carolina sauce using a pastry brush or one of those fancy food mop things. the meat is ready when it reaches about 190 degrees F. Let it rest before shredding with two forks and saving 1 lb of it for the stew.

i know i linked a lot to that Amazing Ribs website, but that site more than any others out there on the innernets have helped us become better smokers. it'll teach you a lot about the fine art of smoked food.

cheddar and candied bacon cornbread and st louis-style ribs will follow in another post.

UPDATE 2:15 am, 5/16: so i feel like an idiot, or at least have very poor memory. earlier tonight i went to see a movie with the boy and afterwards a quick dinner before i hopped onto the first of several conference calls tonight (off topic, i need to find a new job - these late night calls are killing me). while at dinner, i proudly told the boy about this post, and he said, "But that time we were on the sofa bed and it was snowing outside, that's not when Dale died. That happened two years before". so duh, i'm dumb. how come i can take two perfectly separate memories and smoosh them into one without realizing it? anyway, it was a Daytona 500 that we watched that day and maybe i confused those days because Michael Waltrip also won on that day, except that day it was more like the Daytona 100 because of rain delays or something. anyway, carry on. i'm done here for now.


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