Sunday, November 8, 2009

"It's All Over For Another Year"

My parents are Snowbirds. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me provide my own definition. Snowbirds are retired parents who have long since parted ways with common sense. Instead of listening to their children and taking up hobbies like gambling or lawn bowling, they buy a second house in Florida, lug half their shit down there, and make new friends with names like Granny Mildred and Louie. For six months they complain about how hot it is and for six months complain about how cold it is.

Michigan Snowbirds generally start their migration before Thanksgiving, so their kids are spared the misery of planning and executing two family holiday gatherings with them. My parents, however, do not spare us that ritual. In my family, both Thanksgiving and Christmas happen to fall on the first weekend of November, two days before they flee the state.

Thanksgiving for us was never as much a holiday as it was a long weekend that started out with a gorge-fest that would put Fire Mountain or Old Country Buffet to shame. Christmas, however, was all about decorations, presents, getting smashed, and staging another gorge-fest. My parents were never big on the Christmas thing and mostly put up a tree and decorations for the grand kids. Toward the end, my mother didn’t even un-decorate the tree after Christmas. We were barely out to our cars, and she would slip a big black garbage bag over it, ornaments and all, and make my dad haul it back to the basement until the next year. They stopped bringing the tree up altogether once they moved to Florida. They claim they “decorate” it down there, but I have my doubts.

So with our truck packed to the gills, Philip, Alexis, and I headed to Up North Michigan for our early Family Christmas. As we pulled into my parents driveway, my dad was putting the finishing touches on packing. They bought a small camper for their truck bed, which is where they eat and sleep on the two-day drive to Tallahassee. Another thing you might not know about Snowbirds is that they congregate at the end of the day, which is anytime after five o’clock in the evening, and sleep the night in Walmart parking lots. If you’ve ever wondered why it looks like an RV Park at your local Walmart after the sun goes down, that’s why.

But my Snowbird parents are a whole ‘nother level of crazy. They also bought a small horse trailer that they’ve retrofitted with lights, a toilet, two cots, and a small chest freezer. I guess if they pick up guests along the way, they’ll always have a place for them to crash. And don’t even ask about the chest freezer. You wouldn't believe me anyway.

This year, my dad and I were charged with cooking the meat for the holiday feast: Ten pounds of pork loin that my mom marinated overnight in a small storage bin. The weather was gorgeous in Manistee, so we decided to smoke the meat in my dad’s heavy duty, refrigerator sized smoker. This guy is hard core. Instead of troubling himself with those five gallon propane tanks that the rest of us settle for, he tapped into the main gas line coming out the side of his house. He never has to worry about running out of gas, and he achieves, in his words, “maximum control over the heat.”

My dad and I make a great cooking team because we always start a project of this magnitude by assembling the proper tools—a basement refrigerator full of cold beer, a bottle of schnapps, the rest of the “men” in our clan huddled around the smoker, and a remote control meat thermometer that we can carry with us when we have to go in the house to get more beer. Cooking pork loin is very serious business because it’s an extremely lean cut of meat and if you’re not paying attention, you could easily overcook it. Overcooked pork loin is terribly dry and not so pleasant to eat.

Team Barnett, however, worked meticulously over the course of three hours and a dozen beers to come up with the juiciest, most flavorful smoked pork loin I have ever tasted. And yes, there is a secret. Most sources tell you to cook pork to a well done 170 degrees. I’ve come to learn that this is very wrong advice. While the temperature of pork should approach this temperature as it reaches your plate, it should not be cooked to this temperature when you take it out of the smoker (or out of the oven, or wherever you choose to cook it).

My technique is to cook the meat to 160 degrees and then remove it from the heat. Then let it sit, covered in aluminum foil, for 15-20 minutes. The internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise until it settles somewhere between 165 and 170. This gives the other cooks plenty of time to get the side dishes ready, and it gives my dad and me time for one more beer before we sit down to our shamefully bountiful family dinner.

In addition to the mounds of solid pork, the dinner table this year was laden with creamed cabbage, macaroni and cheese, cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, taco salad, some purple cranberry-whipped cream concoction, and a dessert selection of apple cake, apple pie, cherry pie, brownies, and Karen’s pecan pie which, by the way, was about the best I’ve ever tasted. (Karen, please send the recipe!)

Needless to say, my mother sent us all home at the end of it all with big plastic containers of left-overs. And while we were all hugging our beloved snowbirds good-bye and filing out to our cars for the long drive home, My dear old dad slapped the same cheery exclamation point on the event that he has since as long as I can remember: “Well, it’s all over for another year.”

And for them, it is. For the rest of us, it's time to hunker down and wait for the impending winter rituals we embrace as our own, the ones we know will bring us one step closer to spring and the return of our crazy, restless snowbirds.


  1. Wonderful post, Bob. I can picture all of this, from the huddling over the smoker, the numerous beers and the table groaning with mac 'n cheese and all the rest -- right down to the affectionate goodbyes. Yay Midwest family love.

  2. Steves, the number of beers is less important than knowing it was a good rot gut beer that you can buy by the 30 pack. I've never been able to buy Bass Ale by the 30 pack, by the way.

  3. Bass is a good baseline, but let me show you the way someday.