We missed the first one in 2005... and we somehow managed to be absent for the one in 2007. But other than those two times, we’ve been making the trek to the little hamlet of Englewood, Tennessee every fall for Eric’s epic weekend-long birthday parties, the ones that have become known as The Hysterics at Eric’s.
The Hysterics have become a bit less hysterical over the years, most likely because all the participants are ten years older than when it began. It’s much less a drunken debauch and much more a collegial get-together with old friends. And that’s just fine.
Every year’s affair is memorable for a different reason... and sometimes more than one reason. We’ve fired off model rockets, gone shooting, had inflatable sheep in attendance, tested our archery skills, dressed up as soldiers. We’ve dined on country-style ribs, steaks, barbecue, ziti, carry-out Mexican food, and gumbo. And there’s always some kind of music, and some form of Poetic Recitation.
Oh, and did I mention the single-malt Scotch? There’s always some of that, too.
This year was memorable for at least two reasons... at least, memorable for Dee and me. Reason One was that this year, Elder Daughter was present for at least part of the festivities. And Reason Two was that this was the year of the food that shall hereafter be referred to as TMTONTBCBRSP - The Meat That Ought Not To Be Consumed By Red Sea Pedestrians, which was served up in its classic country form.
It should be understood that real country TMTONTBCBRSP is entirely outside the experience of many people who did not grow up in the American Southeast. It is vastly different from most people’s idea of TMTONTBCBRSP, which is either a lump of pink flesh that comes out of a huge tin labeled “Plumrose” or some such; thin slices of luncheon meat from the supermarket deli counter, designed to be combined with one’s choice of cheese to form a sandwich; or a spiral-sliced chunk of meat that comes from a storefront bearing the legend “HoneyBaked.” This is not those things.
Emphatically not HoneyBaked TMTONTBCBRSP.
What country TMTONTBCBRSP is, is an entire leg of a beast that does not chew the cud, yet has a split hoof. That leg is rubbed down with a cure, a combination of salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Then it is smoked, wrapped in cloth, and left to hang on a hook for several months, during which time it develops a coating of moldy grachitz and the deep salty funk that is its major characteristic. It’s a process for preserving meat that is as old as the hills, one that is solidly embedded in American folkways.
It should also be understood that just a few miles up the road from Eric and Fiona’s cozy abode lies a smokehouse - a purveyor of products made from TMTONTBCBRSP using the old-fashioned, time-consuming method described above. This particular smokehouse’s products are of an unusually high quality, so much so that they have attracted the attention of well known food writers and chefs, especially those who have associated themselves with the farm-to-table movement. You could say this place is the Mecca of country TMTONTBCBRSP, a cliché that is both valid and amusing for obvious reasons. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that Eric would decide that a nice big chunk of Benton’s Country TMTONTBCBRSP would be just the thing to feed a small army of (mostly) former online journalists and hangers-on.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. The Mecca of Tennessee country ham, so to speak.
Now, the thing one must keep in mind when dealing with country TMTONTBCBRSP is that it is intensely salty. To prepare it for service, you must first scrape the layer of mold and other detritus off the exterior, then soak it in several changes of water over a period of days. Then, simply slice it up, heat and serve. But it isn’t quite that simple. People who are used to the more conventional preparations of this meat are rarely prepared for the intensely funky aroma it gives off.
At one point during the proceedings, I received a somewhat panicked phone call from Eric, who, after several days of advance preparation, was having second thoughts about his meal program.
“When you guys get back to the house, we need to talk. I think we have a problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I think the TMTONTBCBRSP is tainted.”
Upon closer inspection, it appears that Eric had been put off by the intense Poke-Stank with which the, ahhh, Meaty Product had been perfuming the refrigerator - indeed, the entire house - a lusty combination of smoke and grease with a gentle touch of human cadaver. But Yours Truly - by no means an expert in matters relating to TMTONTBCBRSP - reassured him. It’s supposed to smell like this, I said.
And I was serious. I had, over the years, sampled the countrified version of TMTONTBCBRSP on numerous occasions. The first time had been at a now long-defunct place in Smyrna, Georgia called Aunt Fannie’s Cabin, an embarrassingly un-PC restaurant that recaptured the antebellum vibe with appalling success. My main course, a hearty slab of meat, had been intensely flavorful and smoky... and I was up the entire night afterwards, drinking glass after glass of water to knock the salt concentration in my bloodstream back to something resembling normalcy. So I knew what to expect.
I also knew that most of Eric’s guests would be satisfied with small portions, since a little goes a long way with powerfully flavored foods. We would have enough to feed the multitudes... especially since the TMTONTBCBRSP would be supplemented by mashed potatoes, Bou’s amazing cheese grits soufflé, and green beans simmered with a hock from the TMTONTBCBRSP. (Eric - the consummate host - also had put up a few filets mignon for the handful of folks who do not partake of TMTONTBCBRSP.)
Bottom line: Our Tennessee Country Supper was amazing, with the creamy, savory cheese grits offering the perfect counterpoint for the intensity of the TMTONTBCBRSP. Far from being tainted, it was dead solid perfect. Like fine Scotch whisky, it may be an acquired taste for some... but for me it was delightful as well as being somewhat off our beaten food-path.
For those who had the foresight to leave a corner of their bellies unstuffed, there was also an amazing chocolate espresso cake, courtesy of first-timer Rosie. Huge enough to have its own gravitational field, it was a cake that could have nestled comfortably amongst its enormous brethren at the Marietta Diner, where they sell their baked goods by the cubic yard.
All in all a fine weekend, one that was capped off by a Sunday morning breakfast that included Benton’s fine extra-smoky bacon (another Meat That Ought Not To Be Consumed By Red Sea Pedestrians), scrambled eggs, and leftover cheese grits... and Eric’s valedictory recitation of a few of William Topaz McGonagall’s execrable (and unintentionally hilarious) poetic works.
Too bad we only do this once a year, huh?