Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Epicureans in the family

Sunday saw our annual family reunion up in Yadkinville.

By way of preface, let me point out that this is my wife's extended family, a curious collection of aunts, uncles and cousins, most of whom we get to see only once a year. It's always held in July, which means it's usually the hottest day of the year. Consequently — and traditionally —  we gather in the cool basement of the host cousin, cramming about 30-40 of us around the furnace, water heater, insulated plumbing and crowded shelves of canned tomatoes and other assorted pickled vegetables, not to mention all the stored Christmas ornaments.

Nobody seems to have considered holding this thing in September or October.

We don't have a Wehrle family reunion since most of us Wehrles are dead. And if we did have a reunion with those few Wehrles still breathing, it would require traveling vast distances. I have one brother in Iowa and another in Alaska, and while I'd love to reunite with them (it's been years since we've seen each other), I don't know if traveling these great distances justifies the bringing of a banana pudding or a potato salad. Although Kim does make a wonderfully delicious hash brown casserole. Better even than Cracker Barrel, I think.

I kind of look forward to Kim's family, though. These are mostly solid, down-to-earth tobacco/soy bean farmers who wear their Roaring River sensibilities on their sleeves. They mangle the King's English when they ease into their southern idioms and inflections, yet one of them is a published author, another earns his benefits from Duke Power and still others successfully compete in an increasingly digital and mainframe world. Furthermore, I think they all can draw a genetic connection to Junior Johnson, a foothills country boy if ever there was one but someone you'd best never underestimate. So this is my wife's family.

But the main point of this reunion, no matter what anybody says, is the food. The fellowship is secondary.

There is some superb cooking going on here, which I think dates back to ancient family recipes. As the bloodlines arrive individually or in family units, the food gradually accumulates on the serving table. Some put great effort into this, bringing several tempting items. The single guys usually bring the obligatory bucket of KFC or Bojangles, but that's OK, too. It gets et, as they say.

One of the cousins makes the best lemonade I've ever had. Not too sweet, not too tart. It's the only time of the year I drink lemonade. I gladly drive an hour to Yadkinville for a sip of that holy nectar.

Some of the outdoors guys bring venison, prepared either as steaks, burgers or as a barbecue. This year, though, we didn't see any. That doesn't mean we didn't have any, though. Kim and I carefully try to avoid the brown meats, but you never know.

Invariably, the conversation did turn to gamesmanship, so to speak.

"Did you ever have rabbit?" popped one question from out of the basement ozone.

"A long time ago. Did you ever have squirrel?" came the reply. I could see this was becoming one-upmanship gamesmanship.

I was standing off to the side, near the furnace, my ears cocking back and forth like a cat's trying to take in the exchange and hoping not to miss any of it. At my age, that's not a sure thing anymore.

"Yeah, Aunt Elsie used to cook squirrel all the time. She used to put it in a pie and it was gooood."

I glanced at this year's serving table with a skeptical eye. Then it came, inexorably, like an 18-wheeler out of the morning fog:

"Did you ever eat a ground hog?"

Oh my god. This is one question I never though I'd hear in my entire life. I thought that after I heard the question. Then one of the cousins replied:

"You know, there been times when I've been real hungry, but I don't believe I've ever been hungry enough to eat a ground hog."

Amen to that, brother.

"Did anybody see the mud turtle in the road coming up here," came another question. Now we're into road kill, I thought. "It was about the size of a cowboy hat. Don't know where it was going."

Whew. Not road kill yet. But that didn't stop the obvious next question:

"Did you ever have turtle?"

"I did, onct. Turtle is purty greezy, you know."

Purty sure I didn't know that. I suspect turtle is considered a delicacy in certain parts of the world and perhaps even a staple in others. The thing is, this entire conversation occurred before the blessing. Grace was said, I stepped in line at the serving table, spooning out for myself some mac and cheese, hash brown casserole, potato salad and chicken pie.

At least, I thought it was chicken pie.

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