Friday, October 31, 2014

The Wiener Roast

I don’t know how long the McClure family has been having a wiener roast in the fall, but it’s been a long time. I have used all the usual methods ways of putting these things on some kind of a timeline stretching from now into the past. When was the first one? Who was there? I can’t figure it out.

We used to take the tractor and manure spreader down to our own patch of willows south of the barn that grew in a soggy place between the fields. They were wiped out when Dad put in the waterway, and then we had to leave the place to find them. We’d cut whole willows, bring them home, cut off the leafy tops and sharpen the branch ends, whittling them white and thin with our pocket knives, so we could thread hot dogs on the ends. Fresh green willows won't burn. You can hold them over the hottest fire and only blacken the bark.

We would go across the hard road to the timber and get wood before we began burning the fence posts. There were always fallen trees in the timber to harvest. But after we pulled up the hedge posts, and stacked them standing up around a big tree in the sheep lot, we would take the manure spreader over there and load up a dozen or so to burn at the wiener roast. It burned wonderfully hot and clean, that old dried hedge. I wish I had some here at the shack for my stove.

It would be just my Dad and me when my siblings were married and gone, getting things ready sometime during the week leading up to the wiener roast. At some point we switched to getting the willows and wood with the pickup truck, a green 66 GMC, straight six, three speed on the column. I later drove it to high school. It was usually in the middle of corn harvest, but Dad didn’t mind taking a break from picking corn to get ready for the wiener roast.

Either the morning of, or the night before, Dad would tell me to go up in the hay mow and throw ten bales of straw into the hay chute. The pastures would be petering out by then and we were starting to feed the dairy cows some hay but it wasn’t cold enough to keep them in their stanchions at night. We would carry the bales out to the driveway from the barn and arrange them in a circle around the same general spot in the gravel driveway. Our house was set back from the hard road and we had a driveway that curled around a big front yard, led to the garage, branched off to the barn. Where it was widest we would set up the fire, a pile of wood with extra on the lawn, straw bales in a circle around it, some lawn chairs. Mom did all the rest, which was considerable.

Mom baked pies; pumpkin and apple. The apple had that good cinnamon sugar sprinkle on top instead of a crust. Homemade chocolate chip cookies in coffee cans and a big pan of brownies with that rich icing she made out of powdered sugar, butter, cocoa and coffee. She made a giant bowl of potato salad and a big pot of baked beans. The wieners, not franks, she packed in a rectangular aluminum cake pan covered with a dish towel and stored in the fridge. Bag after bag of hot dog buns, mustard and ketchup, a couple of onions chopped into a bowl, a jar of pickle relish. Don’t forget the stuff for s’mores and hot cocoa mix. Paper plates we could burn in the fire. Mom put it all together, we helped her carry it out to a folding table on the driveway.

But the most important of Mom’s tasks, between the band of time that we stopped buying presents for everyone and gave up Christmas on the farm all together, was putting our names on little pieces of paper, putting them in a hat, and making sure before anyone left that we all drew names for Christmas. The wiener roast was the start of Christmas. Mom was insistent on us keeping Christmas at the farm, and we did until she passed away. We had to give up our family Christmas, but we hope to continue roasting wieners in October like we always did on the farm.

Back then the married couples and their kids began arriving early. If you were hungry you could make yourself a sandwich. We didn’t roast the wieners till evening after chores. Until we ate we tended the fire with a pitchfork, threw a football around the yard, talked about the Cubs, just spent time together. It was usually October. In 1984 we had the wiener roast on the Sunday when the Cubs got beat in game five of the National League championship by San Diego after winning the first two. Leon Durham, in his last game as a Cub, let a ground ball go through at first base that began their downfall. At that moment we knew it would be an awful day for the Cubs, and it was. We commiserated together.

My daughter was a baby then at her second wiener roast. We had announced Colleen being pregnant at the wiener roast two years before. It is a family event and a great opportunity to announce big news to everyone at once. If you hadn’t seen your brother or sister, or cousins, you could count on seeing them at the wiener roast on the farm. When we were together we realized how much we missed each other, missed being together on the farm. When I traveled and was out of the country I imagined them on that driveway, sitting on bales of straw, looking into the fire, roasting wieners. I loved the fire after dark, and the closeness of us around it.

A wiener roast is sort of a poor man’s pig roast. There’s an art to roasting a wiener on an open fire, and when you do it right there’s nothing quite like it. Everyone has their own method. My advice is this; make sure your wiener is on your willow stick securely and keep it out of the flames. What you want to do is position it the right distance away from a glowing red hot log or a bed of coals. Ideal is a gap between two glowing logs so you can hold your wiener equidistant from the two and roast both sides at once. That takes away the need to roll and turn your wiener stick, which increases the risk of dropping your wiener into the fire. I hate it when that happens. I like mine blistered not charred. But in truth, you can eat wieners raw with no ill effect. Warm it up some way. You can’t go wrong.

Most importantly, cook your wiener the way you like it. Do two. If you don’t eat the second one someone else will. Load them up with condiments or eat them plain. It’s the wiener that gives you that good flavor, that blend of who knows what packed in the little tube. It’s a tradition. Have some potato salad and baked beans. When you’re done throw your plate in the fire. Wash it all down with a beer. Early on in the old days on the farm Mom wouldn’t allow it. Two weekends ago we had a keg of ‘A Little Sumpin, Sumpin’ from the Lagunitas brewery in Chicago. Things have changed considerably.

We had a good turnout for the McClure wiener roast in Ottawa. I was glad to see it. Around thirty five nice people connected as family gathered in our back yard at the fire pit outside the shack. I have known no people in the world longer than these. Because I was the baby my siblings have known me from birth. My brother in law Del came up from Texas with his wife Olive. I met Del when I was five and he was twenty something and married my sister Peggy. Del is a long time and veteran wiener roaster.

My brother Denny was here having moved to Elgin from California with his wife Sandi. Our sister in law Cheryl came with her friend Brice and her family, my nephew Don, named for my brother Don, his wife Becky and three of his four kids Bailey, Megan, and Katie. Don’s sister Devyn was here with her husband Ben and the newest member of their family, my newest great nephew, baby D.J.. Cheryl remains close with our family since her husband, our brother Don, passed away as Del has since our sister Peggy died so many years ago. My brother Darwin and his wife Sheryl were here from Danvers with their daughter Rhonda, her friend Casey, and one of her daughters, Emma. Emma is so grown up. If or when Emma or her sister Allison have children they will great great nieces or nephews to me. Holy Cow.

My two kids, Dean and Maureen were here. Maureen brought her friend Don. It was the first time in a long time Colleen and I and our kids have all been together at a wiener roast. My kids did a lot of long distance travel and we’re happy to have them back home and close. Kathy and Kim came up from Bloomington with their son Keegan. Kurt and Polly came too. My sister Deanelle, her husband Ron, their son Brad with his wife Jen and their three kids Emma, Ben, and Eli were here.

We talked about those of us living away in New York, Texas, Colorado, Germany, and those in the area who couldn’t make it. We did an awful lot of talking. Talking face to face, I find, beats e mails and texting, even Skyping, all to hell. We forget that sometimes.

Did I get everybody? I hope so. If not let me know. This thing is easily edited.

If you’re reading this thanks for coming. There’s nothing like family. We stay close through these traditions and preserve that special place in our hearts for one another by keeping them. Having worked with families who struggled to stay together I think I appreciate my own more. I wish every family could have had the life we enjoyed growing up, and continue to have now that we’re apart, each with our own lives and families. My Mom and Dad, perhaps your grandma and grandpa, would be glad we were together. Thanks for coming. It means a lot.

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