I smell barbecue and think of my dad, of safety and security and nostalgia for a time when meals were predetermined and promised. Not predetermined in the sense that we knew what we would have, necessarily, but in the sense of knowing we would have something. We almost never knew what we would have.
I’m 22 and I’ve met up with my parents in Arkansas for a college football game. I don’t care much for football, but I care to see them and the cousins who joined us. We tailgate with a couple of my dad’s old fraternity brothers who’ve supplied kebobs, burgers and various genres of roasted vegetables. These older men, all portly now from years of home cooking, heartily tell me stories of a man I never knew. I listen with intent to the version of my dad who is a stranger to me. Knowing the few stories I do, I believe he prefers it that way.
I’m a teenager and we’re on family vacation in Blanchard Springs, Arkansas. My older sister is in the midst of what will be an extended phase of indifference. We’ve spent the week wading in questionable rivers, wearing water shoes and neglecting sunscreen. The entire extended family stops at what is partially a convenience store and partially a restaurant that sells pulled pork sandwiches. I am keenly aware of how soon I’ll have to say goodbye to my cousins as we head back home to Texas, always a state away.
I’m in high school and enduring yet another self-proclaimed diet phase. Musical theatre is not a conditioning sport and my body is never good enough in comparison to the girls I see. Dad throws ribs on the grill in the backyard and includes some salmon for me. I don’t remember asking for salmon. My dad doesn’t remember that I don’t drink soda and an untouched liter of root beer bought for me has taken up pantry space for months. But he throws some extra salmon on the grill for me.
I’m in middle school visiting the town where my mom grew up. We’ve stopped in at The Dixie Pig where we say hi to the owners, people my mom hung out with in high school. We order pig sandwiches and french fries and I take in this distantly familiar restaurant, decorated with license plates and pictures of town beauty queens. It’s a small town, filled with shadows of my mom’s past. I smile as I’m introduced to my grandparents’ friends and a woman who was a bridesmaid in my parents’ wedding.
I’m young and surrounded by cousins at my grandparents’ house for another humid holiday gathering. They live in an anonymous town, populated mostly by elderly folk who were formerly employed by the now-closed cotton gin. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite places in the world. My uncle Mike, Pop and dad shot a deer in the woods that would later become dinner. I see it hanging, lifeless in the shed where they would skin it before making brisket. This is not strange to me, their killing of something that will help us live. I have never shot a gun, neither then nor now, and I have no intention to. But I eat the brisket hunted and cooked by my family’s hands. I am too young to understand the luck in this, a family willing to work this hard to provide a meal.
Meat isn’t the story here, really. It’s an accessory, a representation of innocent freedom from major responsibility and worry. It’s the generosity of parents who did their best to provide three girls lives full of flavor and opportunity, the value of which could never be calculated. It’s the southern adage of comfort food, of lovin’ from the oven, of memories that enter my mind via smells of A1 steak sauce, potato salad and coleslaw.
I’m 23 now and home from my new life in Chicago for the first time since Christmas. I stand in line at Red River BBQ to grab our pre-ordered food for the Fourth of July. My dad pays, a small gesture he’s performed for years. It means nothing to him. Like that salmon on the grill, and the pork in the mountains, and the deer from his hands, it’s something I won’t forget.
*Author’s Note: This post was not written to in any way convince, endorse or otherwise sway readers into support of carnivorous culture. This has been my life experience and a significant part of my upbringing. I both admire and support vegetarians, vegans, and all other non-meat-eating sects, but that is not a truth I can narrate. My hope is that, despite dietary differences, you might still find a little remnant of relatability in the cracks of this story. Much love and keep doin’ you.