Monday, June 18, 2007

Cook-Out Weather

Maureen here again. Yesterday in the warm summer twilight, I was remembering the cook-outs we had when I was growing up in Central New York State. First, they were always cook-outs, never barbeques, and usually on a Sunday night. My family always shared them with the Samsons, the family next door. They had two daughters, Sandy who is my age, and Sue, who is my sister Sheila's age.

The dads, in time-honored American tradition, would grill the hot dogs and hamburgers. In Central New York, a special treat would be coneys, a.k.a. white hots. They came from Hoffman's in Syracuse where people also called them snappy grillers. I adored them and still do. They are a mixture of veal and pork with no coloring added and have a different spicing mixture than conventional hot dogs. Also, being local, I guess they were probably fresher than the few national brands of red hots available at the time. Hot dogs and hamburgers were always eaten on white buns, toasted on the same grill. There was only one kind of mustard in those days, that bright yellow stuff.

Oh, and the dads were drinking beer while grilling. My dad didn't drink much at home, but when he did, it would be the absolute cheapest beer available. In those cook-out days, it was probably Utica Club. I swear in later years, when I came home to visit, the refrigerator contained a six pack of white cans labeled "Generic Beer."

The dads were "helped" at the grill by a neighborhood dog. Stubby was a beagle mix with not much tail, an unfailingly cheerful demeanor with kids, and an unerring nose for charcoal starter fluid. He'd be under your grill before you even got the thing lit. It was neighborhood tradition that Stubby got at least one hot dog from every cook-out. No wonder he was such a happy dog.

The moms, of course, made the side dishes. In the spring and earlier summer, we could get salt potatoes. These are baby potatoes that come in a sack with its own bag of salt inside. The potatoes are boiled in heavily brined water, so that when they are drained, they have a frosty coating of salt. They are then eaten slathered with butter, although in our house, that would have been margarine so that we could get our daily requirement of trans fats. Yup, a cardiogist's delight. If it were later in the summer, my mom would make potato or macaroni salad containing heinous amounts of onions and green peppers. Even Stubby wouldn't eat those. I much prefered Lorraine Samson's German potato salad.

If the weather weren't too hot to light the oven, one or the other of the moms would make Grandma Brown's Baked Beans. Now, no Central New York homemaker would have dreamed of simply opening the can and heating it. The canned beans were put into a casserole and dressed up with mix-ins like mustard, ketchup, or brown sugar. Bacon strips were draped across the top and the whole mess put into the oven until the bacon was cooked and there was a nice crust on the top. And the best part of Grandma Brown's was that the entire family could enjoy the sound effects for the next three days.

In my memory, there were no vegetables, other than pickles.

I do remember two desserts - either marshmallows toasted over the grill on sticks (S'mores were strictly a Girl Scout camp thing) or my mom's chocolate cake made with oil and vinegar. It makes a moist, black cake that's not too sweet, but the white frosting on top was almost pure sugar anyway.

After we were done, we kids would play croquet or badminton (and accuse each other of cheating), the dads would talk about cars or the races at the Utica-Rome Speedway, and the moms would make coffee. It could still be 90 degrees at 8 p.m. and my mother would insist on her hot coffee after supper; I could get a hot flash just thinking about it. As it got darker, we'd all spray ourselves with OFF because of the rampaging mosquitoes. Magically and suddenly, the lightning bugs would come out and happily flash along the croquet course. I feel sad about those bugs; I haven't seen one blinking in the dusk in years and wonder if they've fallen prey to some environmental screw up.

Finally, I remember one infamous Fourth of July cook-out. My dad had bought sparklers which were illegal but available almost everywhere. We kids were writing our names in the air with the dangerously white-hot things, when my dad got a brilliant idea. He clipped a line of sparklers to my mom's clothesline that connected from the house at one storey and then to the garage at almost two storeys off the ground. Dad lit the sparklers and pushed them out to maximum height. We were delighted with the waterfall effect until the fire department called. Chief Smith, father of my classmate Christine, warned Dad that other neighbors had complained and the show was over.

The four parents are all gone now, the family homes sold, and the Samson daughters and my three sisters and I are scattered from the shores of Lake Erie to Cape Ann. Utica Club is now cool retro beer for the grandchildren of our parents generation. You can still get coneys, Grandma Brown's, and salt potatoes in Upstate New York. I've talked to other exiles here in Massachusetts, and those are all items we remember fondly. And I still miss the lightning bugs.


Shannon said...

I remember him drinking Old Milwaukee. haha

Mo said...

For those not in the know, Shannon is my Dad's granddaughter, my sister Pat's daughter. Her dad, Mr. Pat, drinks Labatt's Blue, a fine choice. He used to bring it to Rome at Xmas so that he would have decent beer to drink. Then Dad (Grampa Jack to Shannon) would help himself to Mr. Pat's "expensive" beer and leave the Old Milwaukee that none of the rest of us could stomach. In self defense, I would buy a nice dry Finger Lakes wine like Bully Hill Got My Goat Red that I knew Dad wouldn't touch.

PM61 said...

The beer was more often Genesee than Utica Club.

For some reason, the red hots always got overcooked until there was this black layer of charred skin on the outside. It was years before I realized this wasn't the way they were supposed to be cooked.

And Maureen cheated at Jarts as well as badminton and croquet.

P.S. I guess the number 8 is now for Yaz or Jim Lorentz -- not Mr. Deadtome.

SheilaShine said...

I remember the fresh sweet corn and the tomatoes bought down on the muckland south of Rome. You can't get corn so fresh or sweet around here in Eastern MA. And when there were no sparklers Dad or Joe Samson would light up a road flare just for the hell of it. I miss sitting around with the 'rents just listening to them talk about everyone in the neighborhood.

Chris said...

What a fabulous memory - and so nearly the same as some of mine! At a couple of extended family reunions, my grandfather would make his bean hole beans: dry beans soaked overnight, then dressed with brown sugar and molasses, and salt pork I think, then stuck in a freshly dug bean hole and cooked for a very long, slow time. Yummm! My mom's version was B&M baked beans dressed with chunked pineapple, hot dogs and either brown sugar or molasses, served with either coleslaw or waldorf salad. Also yummm!

pgriff said...

Sheila, I'm still laughing about the road flares. We were so easily amused, and Dad was such a pyro. (Hey, in the winter we had to settle for the Yule log on cable).
And yes, Maureen did cheat! (Sorry Mo, but I had to pile on so that no one would notice that I was cheating, too.) Too bad it was Sandy that got hit by lightning when we were playing croquet. I will never forget that.
As for beer, yes, Dad did switch to generic Old Milwaukee. I think it was actually called Old Millwater (LOL). Apparently, UC and Schultz and Dooley gained too much cachet for his taste once they added the Saranac brand.
If you really miss lightning bugs, come to Western New York. They have been lighting up the yard for weeks because of the hot, dry weather. Of course, that also means we have the mosquitoes to go with it...part of the cookouts I don't miss!
OK, so that was the Sunday activity. On Saturday, there was Utica Rome Speedway, the West Rome Drive In, Foley's for soft ice cream (aka custard), or UNO on the Samson's sun porch where we could also see what everyone else in the neighborhood was doing. It really was a great extended family.

SheilaShine said...

I don't remember playing Uno, but we did have marathon sessions of Flinch and Gin Rummy. Lorraine Samson was hard to beat at Flinch.