Saturday, December 3, 2016

DONE TO A TURN – The World’s Smallest Barbecue

When I was a boy, my family had a summer home on the lovely St. Croix River, about an hour north of St. Paul. My brother and I spent many abundant summers there with Mom, while Dad came and went, commuting most days to work in the city.

Franconia, in its heyday an active logging town complete with school, post office, livery, saloon and jail, had found rebirth in the 40s and 50s as a mostly-summer retreat for well-to-do St. Paul families. With its deep-wooded hills, seething meadows, foot-numbing trout stream and, of course, the river, it was an idyllic place. I spent nearly every waking hour outdoors.

Besides the many other city kids our age who shared the adventure with us, Franconia had its share of home-grown characters. There was old Gus Munch, who lived in the old, never painted home right on Lawrence Creek—and whom, strangely, no one ever seemed to see. There were Spuddy and Ike Vitalis. She had dark, leathery skin and a gravelly, baritone, chain-smoker’s voice. And the twinkle in her eye and warm embrace of all us kids all but compensated for Ike's crusty detachment.

One of Spuddy and Ike’s sons was Jackie, a strapping young man in his mid-twenties—a bricklayer. Personality-wise, he took after his mother; he loved kids…and life. With his well-tanned weightlifter’s physique, spirited blue eyes and naturally curly hair, he was the embodiment of Swedish perfection. And he was the idol of all us little river rats.

     By the time he poked his head out into the 
     gap between boughs, Jackie already had him 
     in his sights.

Every July, my family would host all our Franconia neighbors for a pig roast. Dad would buy a whole pig and rent a commercial motorized rotisserie. Early the morning of the event, while he set up the roaster in the back yard, my brother and I would dig a large pit, fill it with bags and bags of charcoal briquettes, and then, with Dad’s close supervision, light it.

One year, after everyone had gotten their fill of that succulent pork and its many accompaniments, Jackie, like an inspired camp counselor, gathered a few of us boys, and enlisted us as co-conspirators in his vision: our own, kid-sized barbecue. Then, with us in tow, he headed home to pick up his .22. 

We set out up the steep, wooded flank of Monument Hill, eyes peeled for our quarry: red squirrel. At the top, we heard it before we saw it. Fifty yards away, hidden somewhere in the impenetrable needleage of a big old pine tree, the little critter had already spotted us and let loose with his scolding chatter.

I'm afraid that squirrel didn’t know who he was up against. Jackie, giving us all a lesson in woodsman’s wiles, motioned us stealthily forward, and there we just waited the little bugger out. As we all held our breaths, the squirrel must have thought we’d left. And by the time he poked his head out into the gap between boughs, Jackie already had him in his sights.

With the rifle’s sharp clap still echoing through the forest, our kill tumbled to the ground, bouncing twice off the thick, tawny bed of needles. Feeling like heroes, we toted our prize back to the barbecue. The only difference between us and those storied safari hunters like Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt was that no one even noticed our trophy; Jackie's big hand pretty much enveloped it.

Now came the fun part. We watched, spellbound, as Jackie skinned and gutted the pitiful six-inch carcass. Someone got a coat hanger from the house while I spaded out a little three-by-six-inch pit in the lawn right next to the big pig-roasting pit.

We filled our version of the pit with three briquettes, sprinkled on some lighter fluid and lit it. As the charcoal caught, Jackie helped us fashion our wire spit, complete with a handle for turning. Then, with the squirrel skewered, we mounted the spit between two forked-stick supports and started turning.

In about ten minutes, our little roast was nicely browned and sizzling. There was barely enough meat for all the kids to have a taste, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that we’d had an amazing, creative, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that taught us well—albeit on a Lilliputian scale—the timeless ways of hunting and woodsmanship. I wish all kids could have a Jackie Vitalis to inspire and guide them.

And roast red squirrel? Well, I must say it tasted a lot like…squirrel.


Chas said...

Great story, Jeff. Would have liked to be at one of those pig roasts. I only had roast pig one time...I'll never forget that taste. Never had a roasted squirrel. No hunting on Manitou Island.


Jeffrey Willius said...

Chas -- Many thanks, ol' chum, for dropping in on me here now & then. I don't know why I never invited you up to one of our pig roasts. You're right, nothing like pork cooked like that -- or squirrel. You would have loved Jackie Vitalis.

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