The Digressions of dr sanscravat
Once, I was fishing for crappies (pronounced “croppy”) with my father and grandfather in Texas. We were sitting in a rowboat, on the shady side of some mesquites that grew on a crumbling chunk of masonry in the middle of a tank. A tank, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Texas, is a man-made pond used for watering cattle. Texans, being, for the most part, serious about fishing, always stock these ponds with bass and croppy. This particular tank had grown some, over the years, which explains the presence of that spot of shade in the middle. In the water, all around us, dark swimming heads -- some as large as my child-sized fist -- made their way towards the island.
Were they turtles?
Grandad explained that they were water moccasins. Concerned, but trying to appear nonchalant, I asked what he would do if one of the snakes decided to come into the boat. He answered, just as nonchalantly, that “he’d gittout an’ lettem’ have the damn boat.”
A practical man, my grandfather -- ’though, now that I think on it, it seems to me that there were a lot more snakes in the water than in the boat.
Did I ever tell you my mesquite story?
I have no recollection of having told the story -- but that’s never stopped me from retelling a story before. If you’ve heard this before, feel free to wander off, and don’t go whining about it afterwards.
Mesquite is best known as the classic Southwestern fuel for smoky-flavored barbecue. When I was a child, visiting the Texas side of the family, long before I knew there were such creatures as gourmets -- and certainly before gourmets knew about mesquite -- I knew all about mesquite. It was just common knowledge that mesquite provided the hottest, best smelling, and tastiest firewood for outdoor, Texas-sized, feasts.
Everybody knew it.
The morning of a big barbecue would begin with lots of kids jumping in the back of my grandfather’s cream-colored pick-up. We all wore sneakers and blue jeans, rolled at the bottom, and clean white tee shirts.
We were always cautioned about rattlesnakes. Grandad’s hands and arms bore a network of X-shaped scars, so we knew that there really were rattlers out there.
Some years, there would be black and white Texas farm plates on the back of the truck, some years there wouldn’t be any plates at all -- it didn’t much matter. After all, Grandad’s brother drove his entire life without once suffering the indignity of a road test. Driving, like most everything else, was entirely natural -- especially driving out to someplace in the middle of nowhere (Texas, fortunately, being well-endowed with such places) to collect mesquite.
As I recall, the preferred method was to put a chain around the stump of a dead mesquite, dragging it out with the pick-up. The stumps, toughened by the hardship of Texan summers, were reluctant to give up their rocky homes. The frame of the pick-up groaned from the effort. The tall, old-fashioned tires spun, raising a very satisfying cloud of rocks and yellow dust. We screamed with delight as the twisted trees broke free of the crusty dry soil-- all the time imagining volleys of rattlesnakes blasted into the air, guided as by some irresistible fate, directly at us.
It was a thoroughly festive occasion.
Sometimes, since the truck was filled with children, there would be no room for the firewood. That meant that all the mesquite, lashed together with chain, would be dragged in a great jingling clatter behind us, all the way back to the house. There it was used to cook, or cajole the essence of Texas from, the kind of meats that the cholesterol-conscious can only dream on. Those barbecues always ended with hand-cranked ice cream, made with glowing fruit from Grandad’s peach trees. It was the only fitting conclusion to a gustatory event that mixed, without contradiction, innocence and unabashed hedonism, the purest kind of lust and unselfconscious communion.
Mere cooking and eating is a poor substitute for such an experience.