The smell of fresh mint awakens childhood memories of summer
barbeques in the back yard patio of my parents’ house, vintage ‘50s.
Dad built our barbecue pit in the middle of the back wall of the patio. He used cement
blocks as the base. The wall was about four feet high running the length of a 15-foot
cement pad. A lattice affair sat upon a slab of wood rising up to the trellis
overhead. Thompson seedless grapes wove tendrils in and out across the top,
their leaves a perfect shade from the sun’s glare. In front of the patio,
fragrant sweet peas climbed upon strings supported by two stakes. At mid-point,
scarlet roses climbed up to meet the ripened green fruit. Gladiolas (Mom’s
favorite) and other summer flowers bloomed in the beds below.
Dad was proud of his barbecue. He constructed a pulley with pipe
and chain so that he could raise or lower the grate to determine the degree of
heat needed for perfect grilling temperature. Sometimes he would miscalculate,
and we would have a slightly overdone chicken wing or well-done steak. It didn’t
matter to us one bit. The mixture of burning wood, charcoal and Dad’s marinade wafting
about the back yard enhancing our senses. Today’s barbecues don’t quite measure
up to the rustically friendly ones of long ago. They are spiffy
chrome gas wagons with a separate burner on the side for sautéing special sauces
or side dishes. Even charcoal grilles don’t have that woodsy aroma even if the
coals are doused with liquid smoke.
Dad concocted a mixture of mint, garlic, lemon and other secret
ingredients (Dad was always changing his recipes) for the marinade. He also
made what we call, curly-cue hotdogs. He’d make a small incision with a sharp
knife and encircle the length of the wieners. Then he’d pop them into the big roasting pan to marinate along with the steaks or chicken; sometimes both depending on the number of
friends and/or relatives invited.
Meanwhile, we children played games on the lawn in front of the
patio, trying not to run into the flower beds, which we usually did, and then get
a good hollering from Mom. After awhile, we would sit upon the covered lawn
swing, rocking back and forth, watching the older folks play pinochle, canasta
or cribbage on the brightly cloth covered picnic table. Or, we’d munch on appetizers
of salami, cheese, olives, anchovies, chips, crusty French bread, and drink
cool beverages to stave off our hunger. When Mom called us to bring out
plates, silverware, napkins, and side dishes, we knew that the moment had
Dad brought out the pan of thoroughly saturated meats ready to cook.
He started with the hotdogs, brushing them with a large wooden spoon wrapped in
mint and dipped in the left over marinade. The first scent was almost too
much for us. We watched in anticipation for the first done wiener, our excitement overshadowing the tears in our eyes caused by the smoke billowing up from the grille. We’d nearly burn our mouths taking that first bite. But no one ever complained. We just wanted more.
We took pictures of Dad turning a piece of meat or chicken, then he’d
raise his tongs, giving us a salute all the while smiling through the smoky haze. He was
definitely in his glory. Dad loved to entertain and he was at his best when anyone came over for a visit. Out would come the bread, salami, cheese, and wine before guests had a chance to sit. No one ever left his house hungry. Family was important to him. By opening up his kitchen to friends, they became family as well.
Dad’s marinade continues to live on in our families. To this day, whenever
there is a big family barbecue, our children, and grandchildren always request those curly-
cue hotdogs marinated in that wonderful mixture. (At least we knew the main ingredients!)It wouldn’t be a barbecue without them. It’s a loving legacy handed down to my brother and to me and to our families for generations to come.