Wednesday, August 5, 2015

When a neighborhood comes together.

For about ten years now I have called Tucson home. Having moved from the rent insanity and trivial bustle of San Francisco (where I lived for twelve years), I enjoy the laid back pure eccentricity of this, the lil desert hamlet that could. The people are genuine, the cost of living is very doable, the dive bars are real dive bars and have yet to be scavenged by neo-hipsters (but I do see it unfolding before my eyes...) and the food is some of the best I have ever had. Living on the coast of California my whole life I thought I knew what "real" Mexican food was and tasted like. Not until I move here mister. That initial bite of a Sonoran hot dog the first full day I was here I knew I was hooked. My food appreciation had become a food obsession and 20+ pounds later, post five years as a chef and now writing this blog, my love of eating and cooking has only increased by my belt line.

Thing is, and here is something I have noticed about Tucson: neighbors don't really know their neighbors. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it seems that folks do their thing, come home and lock the doors. Or...maybe that's just She-Ra and me. Sure we know one or two names of people that live near us, but for the most part they just have nick names like "Crazy Ambulance Driver Guy" and "Nice Bald Lesbian". It's not like we're anti-social, far from it, we both work with the public for our day jobs and immediately there after you can find us in one of our local pubs chatting it up with the regulars and bartenders. But when it comes to actual home time, we lock the gate and shut the real world out. It is glorious.

When I was a kid growing up in the suburban bliss that was Glendale, CA, a neighborhood-y division of Los Angeles, my dad and I pretty much knew the names of all that were in the immediate vicinity. There were holiday parties, birthday picnics, summertime cookouts and, most importantly, annual block parties hosted by our friends and neighbors and, sometimes, us. These were events that we didn't even think about; they just were and you just attended. It was fun, a healthy retreat for new and longtime residents of your tiny universe and ones that we looked forward to and even extensively planned for.

But as time moved on, technology began to take over and the idea of a neighborhood block party faded into hard bound photo albums and scrapbooks. So were my memories of Mr. Greenstein burning the hot dogs that one year, or when it began raining so hard during an outdoor function that we all huddled on the Babinski's porch and the kids watched the adults get drunk on Michelob, or the time my buddy Mike put mirrors on his shoes so he could look up Brook Hill's summer dress. Stupid things like that. Thing is, those times created dusty photographs and reminiscence that I will never be able to recreate. So when some friends of ours decided to bring the art of the block party back, the Tucson Homeskillet was there and ready to relive those golden moments of neighborly good will.

Nestled near the Winterhaven area of Tucson, the first annual 'Scorchin' Pig Roast' was the brain child of proud parents and proud new homeowners Debby Riccard and John "Gonzo" Gonzales. Their idea was to bring their friends, family and neighbors together for, what they thought was going to be, a one time big time old fashioned block party.

Let's see, umm...yes please!

"We I had been thinking of having a Pig Roast for a long time to get all of our family and friends together," says Gonzo as he balances not only a child but a margarita. "One morning we decided that we wanted to have one and said 'lets text people now and see if they are interested'.  We received enough immediate response and decided at that moment that we would have the pig roast.  I immediately developed a rather basic website and invitation to the pig roast....and the rest followed." 

Ears, snout and part of the pig!

Well, let me tell you, She-Ra and I are very grateful to be friends with Deb and Gonzo because this first annual event was a smashing success. It really brought me back to yonder days of outdoor fiestas with old and soon to be friends. Kids were splashing in the pool, bands were playing, people were laughing and, most importantly, everyone was eating the bounty of pit cooked pig.

You...have no idea.

"We thought the aura of a Pig Roast was a way to bring more people together," said Debby trying to find a place to sit and eat, "and there were also some traditional ties to John's family as his mother is from Caguas, Puerto Rico."

My first plate, about to be demolished...

See, I'm not just writing about some friends that threw a decent party one night and the food was okay. No, it goes beyond that. This event is a rarity in a time where folks just don't seem to know or even trust their neighbors anymore. Now, I'm not trying to spout some atavistic Mayberry crap but...on the other hand, so what if I am? What's wrong with having some friends and neighbors come over once a year, everyone bringing a little something to the party, and for just one moment we put down the phones and turn off the video games? I like Mayberry. Who doesn't like Mayberry?

Honestly, when they told me about this event I immediately saw some potential for a sort of throwback Homeskillet article, one that can encourage fellow Tucsonians (or...Tucsonans? Which one did we decide on?) to possibly get some inspiration from Deb and Gonzo and throw our own block party. 

It can happen! I have faith in you Tucson...

If only this blog had Smell-O-Vision...

"In this day and age I think it is more difficult for everyone to imagine having a block party," notes Gonzo, looking almost a little disappointed. "Society as a whole can be a more dangerous place and more and more people are enveloped in technology and locked in their homes.  No one takes the time to go outside and realize they are a part of a world called Earth.  If neighborhoods would take the time to get involved and reach out to each other, have a party or get together annually or semi- annually, we could revive the block party or at the very least create a friendly community."


Had to take a break from plate #2...

Okay, this is a food blog so I'm gonna get into the food here. 

The pig was amazing. They slow cooked this thing in a hand built "pit" that was actually ground level so the walls came close to about 3 or 4 ft, smoked in a combo of charcoal and mesquite wood. The ears, snout and jowls, my favorite part!, were crispy and decadent. The fatty ratio to the rest of the hog was pretty large, as expected, so cutting it with a sweet or tart thick sauce really brought it together. It was delicious as it was or when I made a pulled pork sandwich on a fluffy pretzel roll. 

And roll is what I did when it came time to leave... 

Where the action all took place

The smoke point on this wood is simply magical

"We had to really dig deep to prepare for the first annual Pig Roast," sites Deb explaining the preparation to develop such a gala as this, "as we had never thrown one before and we wanted it to be successful and have one each year to follow.  We used excavators to tear out trees that we had cut down, we laid tile (not 100% finished by party time) in the living room and kitchen, networked with friends to borrow things such as the kegerator, a large canopy, musicians, assistance in building the pit and the margarita machine just to mention a few. Landscaping was done in the back yard and tables, chairs, and trash cans were rented. So, yeah, not easy and not cheap."

Neighbors digging on the tunes and food coma...

But was and is it all worth it, I had to ask.

"Oh yes!" was the resounding answer.

Still not too sure what a 'horny pickle' is...

Here's the thing. The first annual Pig Roast was held, and will probably be held, the first Saturday in August. Now, for those that may not know, or don't frequent Tucson in mid/late summer, that time of year is known as "monsoon season". 

Now, monsoons here in the high southwest desert are a blessing. They provide a bit of respite from the barreling heavy heat and give us some well needed rain. On this particular time, just about the moment they were to pull the pig from the steam pit, Tucson was hit with a torrential downpour. 

Like, literally, the hog was scheduled to be lifted out at 4pm...and that's when the Almighty unzipped the sky and tears of a trillion angels careened upon us at, like, 3:59pm. 

Won't let bad weather dampen the tunes or the spirits...

I was at work at the library when the pitter-patter of heavy droplets began to hit the midtown branch. From our view out the big back window, dark clouds loomed and rain drops were jutting down, cutting in sideways. 

"Oh no," I thought. "This sucks. I sure hope the pig roast is still happening. More important, I hope the pig is still happening..."

Drying off after the monsoon hit

When we arrived I asked if the sudden storm caused any problems.

"Temporarily," admitted Gonzo. "Our front large tent was in major distress, with many guests scrambling to save the tent from total destruction from the wind and rain while musicians protected their equipment.  The pig was being carved at the time and created a rather tense situation.  Initially, everyone involved was shocked.  But fortunately, it actually created a memorable event and laughs took over as everyone rebuilt the tents, drank and continued to carve the pig."


Yes! See, it was moments like that which always made the best memories. In fact, I'm glad a random monsoon swung in and threatened to ease the good times that were being had by all. As with most monsoons, it came and went just as quickly as it had started so by the time we grabbed our first drink and plate, the tents were back up, the music was back on and the kids were playing hard as all kids should right before school is about to start.

These kids are going for U of A toss across scholarships...

After relaying some tales of block party awesome that I was privy to in my more innocent years, I just had to know if they plan on doing this annually.

"This is definitely intended to be an annual event!," Deb assures me with a mighty grin. "Our goal and intent is for this event to grow each year, and bring family and friends together each year.  How cool is it to be attending the 8th annual pig roast and realize you have new friends that you have met at the 1st annual.  Or now your eight year old is grown and remembers being at the 3rd annual playing games and meeting their new friends as well."

So awesome...

Golden rays hitting the surrounding trees...

Cool. Now I just hope some readers out there take the lead in their own neighborhood and do the same as these guys. It doesn't take much, just a little elbow grease, some cash and the help of our friends and family, related or not, to make a fun shindig for making memories that will last longer than a Snapchat photo. Because this party was one that will inspire many more to come. 

"Definitely!," piped Gonzo when I asked if Tucson should be home to more block parties such as this. "Tucson needs more event such as these for people to be a part of.  I would hope that our Pig Roast will be an extremely large even within five years." 

Just. So. Much. Food. Yes!

I mean, you don't have to do an elaborate splurge such as the Scorchin' Pig Roast, far from it. Heck, most of the block parties I went to were like hot dogs and Ms. Wong's ambrosia salad with some cheap beer and a radio. Still, somebody had the notion to be all "It's a beautiful summer day! I've got a cooler and a bar-be-que. Come one, come all. Bring the dog."

Heck, in this day and age you could do a vegan cook off and homemade beer extravaganza, or perhaps the hipsters can congregate and have an annual 'Ironic Moustache' competition and inflatable pool party or even a build a grill out of old Jenga pieces and bits of your roommate's waterbed because he hasn't paid rent in two months type of get together. 

Point is, you're getting together, with friends and neighbors, with family that you adopted and that adopted you, for one shining day and night for the purpose of "Dude...why not?" which can possibly bring us all a little closer in the time of not-too-social media. Sure, I internet most of the day, have devises and text instead of call, but I do prefer a nice lawn chair, a cold beverage, hot drippy meat of some kind served on a questionable paper plate while listening to good music over any status update or Instagram hashtag anyday. 

But....that's just me.

Beautiful sunset after a beautiful day...

When night began to creep in, when the kids began to get a little cranky and, most importantly, when the food hallucinations began to take hold, we knew it was time to call it. As we made our way out, thanking Deb and Gonzo and taking one last bite of a crispy pig ear, I couldn't help but think that even through all the years since those little get togethers in Glendale, it felt as nothing had changed. For one sparkling moment, a very well welcome deja vu set in and I couldn't help but smile. 

Yeah I'm an adult now, but just a small moment with people I pretty much had no idea who they were, became friends, just like when random neighborhood kids would skuttle in Victor's mom's Korean BBQ block party, we were pals for an instant and then we'd never see each other again. But I sure hope that's not the case for this party. 

Because I forgot to get the coleslaw recipe from that nice lady in the purple top. What was her name? Ah, it doesn't matter...

I'll see her again next year. 

Typing and Camera
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Early August, 2015

Metal Influence
Municipal Waste, "The Art of Partying"

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article! I love the childhood memories. Nostalgia starts in your 40's!