I'm from the South. I grew up and went to college in Tennessee, and worked for many years in Atlanta. But I never felt like I was home until I moved to New York City. The city fit my disposition and overall world-view nicely, not to mention the comfort that comes from living in a Blue state. So, it takes a lot for me to find a desire to go back below the Mason-Dixon. Still, every Memorial Day weekend I return to kick off the summer.
Why? Why do I go back for five days of nonstop comments about the liberal media, the constitutional wrongs of the "war of northern aggression" and the amazing wonders of the NRA?
Believe it or not, I go to Tennessee to camp with my uncle, Tony, and his gun-toting friends from college. Though debated every year, the general consensus is that the tradition began in 1992 shortly after Tony and his friends graduated from college. They chose to go out behind my grandparent's property to a bluff by a lake. Back then the menu for the entire weekend consisted of the fish they could catch, and cook over an open fire. Occasionally a pizza would find its way back courtesy of the occasional visitor not interested in spending the night outside. But the overall spread was limited.
While I was in high school, every once and while I would stay a night or two. It wasn't until college that I began to routinely join the group. I am quite competitive, and when several of the guys in my architecture class bet me I couldn't stay the entire weekend (only four days back then), I had a mission to prove them wrong. Ever since, I've been a regular. I didn't introduce any new members until I started dating my husband, a west coast liberal living in New York.
I was a bit apprehensive. You don't have two lawyers for parents without developing some propensity for debate. I knew what he was going into and my only advice was "don't talk." He lasted 45 minutes. I was proud.
Eventually, the conversations became too intense and he had to jump in. And they didn't even shoot him. Now, after three years, the group has embraced him, given him a nickname and even become friends with him on Facebook. Despite our differences, the weekend continues to be a relaxing, relatively peaceful time with good food, good drinks and good friends.
I have noticed over the years that as our salaries have increased, so has the sophistication of the menu. We find good food can be found all over New York, but there is something more daring about driving a smoker into the woods in rural America.
Every morning, Tony pulls himself out of his giant family sized tent (he's a big guy, and his wife and two kids come out for at least one night over the weekend), and starts up the kitchen. And I mean kitchen. This year he had 3 gas burners, a large prep table, 2 giant coolers, and a full array of pots and pans. All in a mesh tent (it might rain!). Breakfast can be any combination of: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes or Tony's specialty the "duck blind sandwich" (toasted bread, a ½ pound of sausage, American cheese and mayonnaise).
Lunch is more casual, and catch as catch can. You're on your own there. Usually, it's just hamburgers and hot dogs, but I've seen corn, fried sandwiches, nachos, and even ice cream. Though, the ice cream was my doing this past year (along with my husband). My husband's sister gave me (us) an Ice Cream Ball as a shower gift. You add the basic ice cream ingredients (sugar, cream and vanilla (next year we'll be more adventurous)), and shake. And shake. And shake. 20 minutes later, you have ice cream. It's really remarkable. And another camper brought a cast iron pie making device, so we were able to provide a la mode.
And then, there is dinner.
Over the years, Tony has set up a schedule, with each night having its own theme. And you have to let him know months in advance when you'll attend, so he can make sure it's all there (did I mention that he's an accountant?). Thursday night is venison chili night, venison he "harvested" himself. Topped with sour cream, shredded cheese and Fritos, you won't find a much better meal. Until tomorrow.
Friday is steak night. Tony and his friends like their meat, even if they haven't killed it themselves. So they order from Lobel's on New York's Upper East Side. There is not a better piece of meat to be had out there. Anywhere. Dry aged and beautifully marbled, these steaks are a sight.
After applying his proprietary spice blend, Tony asks you how you like your meat cooked, and throws those giant steaks onto the open fire pit that burns all weekend. Then you eat. Then you pass out a bit.
Saturday is smoked meats. Mixed smoke, if you will. In the morning, Tony's friend fires up the propane (this is not a weekend for anyone watching their carbon weight, or their physical weight, I suppose) smoker. Once it reaches heat, he adds the soaked wood chips to the bottom, and then the meats above. Chicken, turkey, ribs and kielbasa are smoked the whole day just in time for dinner. Then you eat. Then you pass out a bit, again.
Finally, on Sunday is the fish fry. All weekend the locals take advantage of their year-round licenses, and fish. And then they nap. Then they fish some more. Then they "put out jugs" for catfish. That seems to take some time, because they come back for dinner, and go back out at night. Maybe they're fooling us all and going to the store. They do bring back fish, after all.
All the fish caught over the weekend is cleaned and frozen on the spot, and saved for Sunday. On Sunday night, the propane is fired up again, and a big pot of oil starts up. The fish is filleted, seasoned and battered. Once the oil is hot, the fish take one last swim. Served with a side of hush puppies and French fries, dinner is on. Then, well, you get the picture now.
As we come onto Labor Day, there are still three seasons before the next campout. Time to experience lovely falls, harsh winters, and rainy springs in New York before we shed the grit from the city for five more days in rural Tennessee.
All are welcome by the way. But tread carefully. After all, the campsite is armed.