“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
–Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
As a child, I was known as the Spare Rib King. My brother had taken the mantle of Pizza Monster due to his abundant love for all that is good and round and cheesy, but when it came down to ripping delicious sauce-covered meat from bone, I was the ruler of them all.
There are several childhood photos of me, sauce smeared all over my fat elated face, a pile of bones before me having shovelled and chomped and torn every last edible morsel from them. But all I ever knew of ribs, tucked away in the South-East corner of England that I called home at the time, was the Chinese variety. Luminous red. Sticky with thick, spiced sauce, and served alongside spring rolls and prawn toast.
Dinner as a child tended to consist of the usual after-school grub advertised on the telly: chicken dippers, turkey dinosaurs and spaghetti hoops were stalwarts. The week was occasionally jazzed up by a spag-bol, or on Sundays, a proper roast dinner with Yorkshire puds and a small glass of wine (thanks Europe). Food was traditional, English, plain and completely satisfactory. There was little experimenting besides the occasional Chinese takeout, and little need to really. Food tasted good, and I had no idea that other countries properly existed, let alone other cuisines lying beyond the frozen tesco meals and general English fare.
The only reason we had even ventured beyond the British shores for dinner ideas was my ever adventurous mum and her effortless attempts to get my old man to ‘try something new’. It wasn’t till they were in a relationship, and almost married in their 20s that my dad tried Chinese food for the first time, or air travel, or tomato sauce even. To my Dad, if your food wasn’t covered in brown or beige, and accompanied with puttaters then it was not to be trusted.
But my food worldview – my forldview…wooodview?… – all changed when I turned 11 and my family whisked its way off to Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Blues, Elvis Presley, a bridge, a pyramid, a bit of the Mississippi river, and that holiest of holies – BBQ.
Like Superman rediscovering Krypton, the Spare Rib King had returned to his long-lost rib kingdom.
There are many forms of BBQ in America. Each State in the South has its own style, sauce, and preferred bit of animal to BBQ (in some cases there are several types within a State), ranging from Texas style black pepper beef brisket (aka a fuckoff big bit of cow) to the mayonnaise and mustard sauces covering chopped up pig in the Carolinas. But Memphis is known for its ribs.
Ribs are known to the masses as those dark brown, sticky, sauce coated ribs that come from fast food chains and strangely often pizza joints across the Western world (why are the two intrinsically associated?). Memphis has these ribs, but traditional Memphis style ribs are cooked with a dry rub. Just spices and meat, no sauce. And there is no place that does these ribs better than Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous.
The Rendezvous can be found (with some difficulty) in an alleyway, squashed between a hotel and some other building, parked cars strewn everywhere outside, and smokestacks billowing, well…smoke. The smell of charcoal and sweet sweet cooked meat permeates the air from the pavements to the sides of the alley so following your nose should bring your now-starving self to its casual, welcoming entrance and the steps descending to the delicious basement treats below.
Inside, pictures and trinkets adorn red brick walls, and casual tables are strewn about covered in red and white chequered tablecloths that scream American BBQ. The dim lighting suits the relaxed environment, and through the chatter and shoveling of hungry patrons you can regularly hear the laughter of the large black gentlemen that serve you, lightly coated in grease and smoke, smiles and charm, and look as though they have grown and aged with this place as much as the brick on the walls and the wooden beams overhead.
The food at the Rendezvous was transformative for me. It opened my eyes to a whole new culture of food that previously had been condensed to McDonalds and Slurpees. It was my first memory of realising different countries had different food, even Chinese food hadn’t really registered to me as anything other than an English novelty – the concept of China as a real place was all too foreign (ha). Does that make me a dim kid?…
Anyway, the first time I ever visited the restaurant, we sat down and were immediately served a free portion of gumbo – a traditional New Orleans cajun stew made from leftovers from the day before. It was amazing. The memory of eating it pops into my head out of the blue often, and it was only a small free cup. Maybe three mouthfuls (although to a ‘healthy young boy’ my size back then, three mouthfuls was a lot). So that’s a good start.
Gumbo was followed by the compulsory racks of wet and dry ribs. Wet being the popularised sauce covered Kentucky style ribs and the other caked in a dry rub, cooked, and then rubbed with more …rub… again just before they are served so that there is a thick spiced crust on them. The food is served in simple plastic baskets in a casual, ditch any sense of formality and ego, and stuff this delicious food into your face free from concern, kind of way. Or at least, that’s what the enormous mound of a waiter suggested to me with his eyes.
The food is beyond good and I don’t have an adequate enough vocabulary to explain to you why or how. Each mouthful is an experience. It could be because I don’t get to eat food like that every day, and maybe eating there regularly would make it lose its edge, but by god, BY GOD KING, it is epic. I’ve since had the pulled pork – shove into simple plain American white bread roll, bang some coleslaw on top and it’s magic- and many many more racks of ribs.
I have been back to the Rendezvous every time I have visited Memphis. The last time I went, at 20, I had developed a love of cooking of my own, regularly dancing around my kitchen with my flatmate, belting out funk tunes and cooking up a storm. I understood what properly cooked meat was; what balanced spices should taste like; depth of flavour and the use of acids in cooking. BBQ harnessed everything I was trying to learn to be a better cook and seemed to do it in such a simple, enchantingly relaxed way. I was enamored and became obsessed. I had a smoker shipped from America to Hong Kong, ordered my wood chips, and got the best meat I could afford (shit, frozen, tiny pork shoulder shipped from Brazil) and began smoking on my roof. It is an endurance test. Cooks can take over 12 hours. But it’s also so paradoxically relaxing, and the calm of a long cook, and the love and attention put into the food while you sit back and have a few beers and look at the view around you, basking in the occasional turret of smoke (choking in them also, far too often) is why it tastes so good.
The process perfectly emulates the product.
I have rusted through my smoker now – I’m not very good at maintenance or bringing things in from the rain – but my love is as strong as ever. This food, when I prepare it myself on my roof thousands of miles away from Memphis, brings me back there with every mouthful. I love the power of food to sear memories into your brain (ha! sear – it’s a meat joke).
Love of food makes memories and I can’t wait to make more.
DISCLAIMER: Should anyone read this who is a BBQ fanatic, I know that the Rendezvous ribs are not technically smoked, more oven broiled, and therefore don’t technically qualify as BBQ, but I’ll be damned if you can convince anyone they ain’t BBQ if you taste them so fuck you.
So, this one time we were sitting around, a little sideways. The eclectic collection of couches had sucked us in and the stupid movie we’d all enthusiastically selected was blaring away. We were safe from the thick humidity of the spring night, thanks to the heroic efforts of a recently not-quite-fixed air conditioner which was struggling to keep the tiny room cool against the heat of half a dozen bodies. The ash tray betrayed the endless tokes and the haze that still hung left no doubt of how well the devil had made use of our idle hands.
We’d been lazing around for the better half of an afternoon that had long since lolled into evening. Tummies were grumbling, aching for something more substantial than the chips and Easter chocolate we’d munched on as the sun set. Any suggestion of making the kilometre trek to the smorgasbord of delicious eateries in our little fishing village was quashed by our red eyes gazing helplessly into each other’s, seeing the mirrored lethargy which was preventing us from mobilising our heavy limbs.
At the very moment when it seemed that all hopes of having dinner were destroyed, we heard the door clang at the bottom of the stairs.
“Nelly’s home!” I declared, and in my delight mustered the energy to rise from the cushions to swing wide the door. As he rounded the corner on the staircase, the sight of his towering frame ascending the stairs was almost too good to believe. He was laden with a gargantuan carton, and though leaden eyelids can make standard things seem fantastical, there was no denying the smell of his burden wafting warmly into the little living room.
The room erupted as he entered it. He had brought his merry band of pranksters not just a pizza, but a pizza one metre in diameter. It covered the entire makeshift coffee table and its glistening mozzarella was reflected in the gleam of our hungry eyes. He had catered for all dietary requirements and we dived in, devouring slices of obscene proportions, oil slicking our chins and fingers. We grinned at each other as we gulped it down, thanked Nelly a thousand times for this legendary feat. No one had called to say we were hungry, he’d never been asked to feed the masses. He simply shrugged and bit into his own doughy slice. He had been out all day and was heading home to those he loved, and on the way he’d thought we all might like something to eat.
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”
-George Bernard Shaw
I have a complex and paradoxical relationship with making plans. On the one hand I live by a structured timetabled existence, planning lessons and teaching youths according to plans that rely on other plans born from further overarching plans (schools love a good plan and several wankathon meetings to discuss and plan the plan). Following along from lesson to lesson, trapped in a two week cycle of enduring idiots asking questions and complaining about their laptops not being charged for the lesson.
On the other hand, fuck plans. Plans are the bane of my existence (I was born into and moulded by them, lol batman reference). Having my future mapped out for me in a fully committal way makes my insides feel all funky like I’ve just gone down the whooshy bit of a roller coaster and I become overcome with the sudden urge to punch someone or take my trousers off or some other such unexpected event for fear that having made a plan I will have to commit to it when I might want to not do what I have committed to.
Spontaneity is important and the ability to not have to do things that you said you would do in the past, back when you felt optimistic about life and your ability to participate in it, or didn’t want to disappoint whichever arsehole invited you to something, or said ‘ok’ in as noncommittal way as possible when someone told you they were going to do something is very very important to me.
It’s the classic analogy of a scheduled weekly fornication of a lustless and aged marriage vs the wild unpredictable random finger up the butt type existence of a life with no plans.
As such, even when I have plans, I tend to disregard them or put them in the back bit of my brain that remembers the embarrassing words I’ve said to women or the time that Pointless is on TV in England (I love Pointless). Information that may be helpful at times, but isn’t anything I want to dwell on much.
I already regret having to remember to write one of these blasted things every week and have missed the deadline 2 of 4 weeks already, most likely out of some internal stubborn unwillingness to conform to…well, to my own schedule. Which makes no sense and I am sorry for.
I think I dislike making plans because you never know in life what’s going to come along or be thrown at you. It is the anxious long-term panic of the perennial expat who never quite knows where he’s going to be living or what he’s going to be doing from year to year condensed into the daily trauma of having to follow through with events I said I would go to when I didn’t mean to or now don’t want to.
Plus I like just staying indoors. In my own home. It’s warm there. And Hong Kong is cold right now. Realllllly cold. Two layers of trousers cold. Which for a lazy man on any normal day makes participating in any form of outside life hard. #poorme
She’s on the river and it’s rolling, rolling
water churns and flicks and sways
moving ever onward through
her months and weeks and days.
Full Disclosure: When I started writing this week’s post I had some romantic idea of writing a ballad about time and my relationship with it. I was sort of inspired by this Oscar Wilde poem which deals with time (and uses the analogy of a river!). Unfortunately, that refrain is the only coherent thing that I could come up with. So, in the spirit of the school year starting up again and me going back to work today, I have decided to write a straight up formulaic essay about my perception of and relationship with The River of Time.
Time is like a river that individuals are swept along by, past the varying landscapes of a full and interesting life. Due to its transient nature, time should be valued without attempting to retain it, and each person should aim to make the most of the brief moment they are afforded in the vast expanse of the universe. Though it can be stressful, individuals shouldn’t waste time worrying about its fleeting, but rather embrace the changes that inevitably occur with the passing of ages. As people move with time and can never retrace their steps, it is essential to record the trials, triumphs and tedium to ensure that lessons are learned, memories remain and the sweetness of experience is fully extracted through reminiscence. Like a river, time is powerful, challenging and overflowing with promise. Accepting its varied phenomena is an essential element of one’s humanity.
The transient nature of time necessitates a careful balance between valuing each moment and recognising that it will not last. It is human nature to be preoccupied by the past and plan for the future, but focusing too much on either endeavour is counterproductive to making the most of the limited time one has, as the current propels us through life’s landscapes. People are often gripped by grudges, distant trauma, delusions about “the old days” or simply pining for people or places they have long since left. If an individual is always squinting back at the land they’ve already navigated, they will never truly capitalise on the current moment or see the scenery that is sweeping by them. By contrast, tunnel vision into the distant future, pouring over maps and making rigid plans results in a failure to appreciate the present. Ambition, jealousy and impatience often combine to blind people to contemporary joys, which may not be appreciated until they have been swept away by the strength of the river. “This too shall pass”, be it painful or pleasurable, so time’s transient nature must be respected and one should be mindful of each moment’s ephemeral value.
With time brings change, and though this is natural, people find it disquieting because it forces them to adapt and consider their own mortality. As the river moves through a cycle of seasons it sees the flourishing and floundering of species. So too do individuals as they move through time and must respond to the shifts that inevitably occur in the conditions and country. People mark their years with special dates shared with communities across the globe or within their homes. We watch each other grow and the time we’ve spent on Earth shows in the lines on our faces and the scars on our skin. Individuals often question their value as they see their skin withering: fruit is only worthwhile for its plump, ripe season. After that, it may offer nourishment if bastardised through baking, but more often than not it is discarded without much thought. The comparison to insensible organic material serves to highlight the absurdity of human beings’ paranoia about time tampering with their inherent value. As complex beings, individuals are capable of appreciating as they age, provided they focus less on the physical marks of the river’s natural erosion, and more on the amazing things that have been seen and experienced as they have been swept along.
As part of the appreciation process, it is essential that a person pauses to reflect on and record the twists and turns of the river. The current is strong and unstoppable, but it is never consistent in speed or terrain, so there are often moments when time can be used to capture the traces of an experience. The ebbing and flowing of tides can seem repetitive, but each moon finds a person in a different place along the course, so taking a second to note the things that happened and the way one felt at a particular point in their life is beneficial both on that occasion and for the eras that follow. Reminiscence and reflection are not the same as dwelling on the past. Through these deliberate processes, one can recognise the learning gained through trials that once seemed endless and enjoy the residual nourishment drawn from life-affirming experiences. Photographs, letters and journals allow an individual to defend the most essential aspects of their journey against the inevitable ravaging of time. When they eventually reach the delta, and are pulled apart into so many estuaries to be poured into the vastness of the ocean, there will be something to show for their travels, something saved of the myriad stuff that shaped them.
Time is like a river, its power stems from its transient nature and its ability to push an individual to act and adapt. Through time, human beings discover themselves as they are forced to respond to changing landscapes and the reality of their own impermanence. We will not be here forever, each year seems to disappear more quickly than the last, but there is no use fretting because the current won’t wait. We cannot resist it, so we might as well enjoy the ride. Each day should have every last drop sucked out of it. Each season should be savoured for its idiosyncrasies. Lapsed sweetness and sorrow should be acknowledged for shaping us, as we sail along.
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and its current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away, and another comes in its place, and will be swept away too.”
– Marcus Aurelius Antonius