This 4th of July has me feeling a little nostalgic. Here in my adopted state of Colorado, the neighborhood kids will light off the requisite array of bottle-rockets and cherry-bombs that leave my dog panting and pacing in the laundry room, and the city of Fort Collins will put on a perfectly lovely fireworks display. But it’s nothing like what we used to serve up back in Michigan. There we made a yearly pilgrimage to my friend Dave’s lakefront home in a small town about an hour north of Grand Rapids, where roast pig and DIY pyrotechnics ruled, and the holiday proceeded something like this:
July 3rd, late afternoon
Dave and I grab his pick-up truck and head off to see the hog guy, whose actual title is something like “meat processor” or “livestock evisceration technician.” He lives even further out in the country, down a dirt road with only a small hand-painted sign next to the mailbox advertising his business. We chit-chat amidst the dangling carcasses in a room that could double as the set for any number of slasher movies involving mutated lunatics, comely teens, chainsaws and haphazard limb removal.
Yep, it has been dry, everyone agrees, but it’s probably too soon to know if the soybeans are in trouble just yet (out here, all conversations revolve around the weather or the crops – take your pick).
No, that’s alright, we’ll pass on the antler pen lights and deer hoof key fobs (the hog guy, you see, also dabbles in taxidermy and is always test marketing new products made from sundry spare parts).
Tomorrow’s meal, a 125 pound beauty, is eventually wheeled to the tailgate on the overhead trolley, unhooked and lovingly packed in ice for the ride home. I feel bad for the pig, of course, but better him than me. At some point I realize I’m humming The Circle of Life.
July 4th, first light
An ethereal mist rises off the lake as Dave, with coffee in hand, starts the fire in the converted fuel drum that now serves as our altar. It’s his show, so we give him a wide berth. Besides, it’s really early.
Everything needs to be just so – you’re looking for a nice, even burn that doesn’t get too hot. Maybe 250 degrees, give or take. Like Dave says, “We want to roast it, not toast it.” Nods all around. The first commandment of pig roasting – Thou shalt not hurry.
Some early-risers like to inspect the hog before it hits the coals, to pay respects, offer thanks, or call dibs on a particular cut. I usually forgo this ritual since my keen forensic skills have already determined that (1) it’s a member of the swine family and (2) it is in fact deceased. But now my younger son, a kid who normally gets queasy just picking a scab, wants to pour over the carcass with the rest of the locals. Ever since he dissected a frog back in middle school he thinks he’s the M. E. from Bones.
July 4th, mid-morning
Members of the supervisory staff begin to arrive with lawn chairs and beer coolers in tow. They set up in a semi-circle in front of the roaster to continue yesterday’s discussion about the soy bean yield while monitoring the cooking temperature. Should it fall below a predetermined level, the call goes out to Dave (who is located with either a hearty bellow or urgent message passed on to random passers-by to ensure that no one has to actually get up from their chair) that the flames require stoking. Like I said, it’s his show. Besides, this keeps the supervisory staff focused on the equally important task of turning the hose on the dogs should they get too close.
July 4th, mid-afternoon
After numerous high-level consultations to analyze the latest readings on the meat thermometer, Dave makes the call. “Let there be pig.” This marks the transition from the “cooking” phase to the “carving” phase. Several volunteers deemed skillful with the blade are summoned and suited up. Meanwhile, a growing crowd gathers around the still-simmering carcass, armed with forks, tongs, even sharp sticks, anything that will increase the odds of securing an errant piece of steaming pork. As the process of removing flesh from bone begins, the carvers vie for position with members of the unruly mob (which now includes the dogs) overcome with hunger after hours of olfactory stimulation.
This also signals the unveiling of the rest of the meal, when the Saran Wrap is removed from countless platters and baking dishes spread across every inch of table and counter top. The feast is a glutton’s dream: salads, breads, potatoes (mashed, baked and every other permutation), corn on the cob, great steaming vats of baked beans, fresh fruit and, finally, an entire wing of the kitchen devoted solely to desserts. Grown men are openly weeping.
July 4th, various
Just a few miles west of town is Burley Park, normally nothing more than an open field but a teeming collection of trinket and trash purveyors every Independence Day. Excursions depart for the flea market on a regular schedule. Not that anyone needs a combination calculator/nose hair trimmer or a hubcap for a ’72 AMC Gremlin, mind you, but on this most red, white and blue of days it serves as a reminder that we Americans have the freedom to squander our hard-earned cash on either one. Typically, I can be found fondling old Hot Wheels toys and even older Volkswagen memorabilia.
July 4th, late afternoon
As people begin to shake their post-meal stupors, the strains of a discordant melody can be heard wafting across the lawn. The “Boon Dockers,” one of mid-Michigan’s hottest garage bands (which simply means they sweat a lot), is preparing to perform crimes against the music industry. Selections range from Suzy Q to the Old Rugged Cross, all with a heavy blues influence. As in Labatt Blues. To call their sound “eclectic” is being generous – it most closely resembles that noise your grandfather used to make first thing in the morning, set to music. Typically there are more people on stage than in the audience. I have been known to jam with the boys on occasion, but get the same reaction to my extended guitar solos as Marty McFly did in Back to the Future.
July 4th, dusk
The crowd again grows restless. Anticipation ripples through the ring of people softening the soles of their shoes around the bonfire as several lollygaggers are sent to retrieve the fireworks.
There are two factions at work here. My son (the future Medical Examiner) believes no Independence Day celebration is complete without Snap ‘n’ Pops, those strange little paper noise-makers that snap (or pop, I’m not really sure which) when you hurl them to the ground. I can only guess that these recessive tendencies come from his mother’s side of the family.
At the other end of the spectrum is another friend with plenty of disposable income and a penchant for things that go “boom.” No one questions his impressive cache of pyrotechnics, the vast majority of which are illegal in Michigan. We just stand back and enjoy the show. And keep a fire extinguisher at the ready. A few foolhardy souls join him on the dock to help send all the ordnance skyward, lighting fuses and then falling over one another in a mad dash back toward shore as whistling explosives launch from their mortar tubes with an angry “thump.” The show is spectacular, and puts many of the surrounding communities’ displays to shame. But they still talk about the year he showed up with the Titanic, a floating incendiary device designed to fire multiple rounds from its smokestacks as it chugged out across the lake, while fountains of sparks erupted fore and aft. Unfortunately, it suffered the same fate as its namesake. A rogue wave tipped the vessel onto its side, sending several errant shots into the scurrying crowd before the mighty ship headed for Davey Jones’ locker with most of its payload unspent. Salvage crews have yet to locate the wreckage in the murky depths.
July 5th, unspecified
Like a python that swallowed a tapir, most attendees are immobile and near-comatose as they slowly digest the previous day’s meal. Eventually, they will rise only to spread some balm on their sunburns (or powder burns) before returning to a prone position for the duration. All will proclaim that this was the best celebration ever. Another successful 4th of July, mid-Michigan style.
As for northern Colorado, well, I’ll grill up a few hot dogs if you bring the Snap ‘n’ Pops.
Image compliments of porchdrinking.com