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Summer smoke

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The Observer ventured into the depths of far north Pulaski County over the weekend to El Jefe Alan Leveritt's palatial spread, out near Cabot. It's a place that's been in his family for over a hundred years, with the log cabin one of his forebears built duded up nice inside and out. The house sits on a rolling little corner of heaven, graced with fowl and sheep and an enormous truck garden full of the fantastical heirloom veggies.

Yours Truly has been heading out there once a year for a while now to smoke ribs and pork butt for the annual Times' staff-and-friends party. We can't really remember how we got the gig — probably some overheard interoffice boast about the swine we'd cooked on a casual basis up until then — but we've been doing it ever since. More than 70 people come to the shindig every year, so it's a big to-do.

It takes around seven hours for pork to go from raw to edible the way The Observer does it, so we were there on Saturday morning long before the other guests, firing the two upright smokers, scrubbing down a table and the racks, applying the deep red rub and getting ready to lay meat to heat.

There's a Zen to that moment, when you're cooking — the moment when the list of things you have to do stands in a neat, numbered column in your head, steps 1 through 50, each one crossed off in turn with pauses to wipe your hands and think in between. The Observer is one of those people whose mind goes a mile a minute most of the time. When we're cooking, though, our head gets still, the goal glimmering out on the horizon and a clear path to it. At a moment like that, we can see why some people love to work in kitchens.

With the meat seasoned and tucked away, the doors of the smokers shut and the temperature gauges hanging where we wanted them, The Observer washed our hands for the umpteenth time that morning then settled in for several hours to wait, glancing up every once in awhile at the gauges, adding sticks of oak from Alan's wood pile as needed.

The last time we smoked out there, it was dead in the middle of summer, full of misery. Last weekend, though, was pleasant: breezy, cool most of the day, with the wind running her hands through the garden and the leaves of the trees. We'd brought Junior's laptop, and so we killed a few hours watching "Sunset Boulevard" in the shade. The sun rolled over the sky and sank. The shadows inched toward the garden, and the space between the shadows filled with dusk.

The meat came out just before 7 p.m., and we hauled it inside the cool house by the platter — four Boston butts and 10 racks of ribs — The Chef varnished in grease and sweat, eyes smoked red as a demon's. Like we usually do, we waited for the chow line to thin, grabbed a plate of pork and potluck goodies, then retired to an out of the way place to sup: the open side door of our van near the smokers, away from the crowd. Behind us, 70 or so people — all of them freshly showered, in shorts and polo shirts and light summer dresses — sat down at round tables in the gloaming.

The Observer is an admitted odd duck of some renown. We don't really like parties all that much, just because we never mastered the art of small talk and don't drink enough to ever become socially lubricated. The annual hoedown at Alan's, however, is one we always look forward to, even if we do wind up the day looking like a hobo who has snuck onto the grounds for a free meal.

Here's why: We love that moment at the end, when everyone is walking to the tables with their plates. The Observer was a churchgoer in our youth, and before the church dinners, some revered old head always stood up and said Grace. The Observer has never been much for prayer, but we always loved that time — the silence of it, heads bowed, the smell of good food in the hall, serving spoons waiting in casserole dishes for hands to unclasp.

There's no Grace said out at Alan's. But that moment is still there, and The Observer loves it: that lovely, twilight moment just before the people sit down to Fellowship, smile, and dig in, to the nourishment and replenishment of our bodies. Amen.

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