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IMG_5676Houston is my office space.  It is one of the fastest growing city in America and it is the place where God has called me to serve Him.  Falling in love with a city is easy when the love of the Lord for that city has preceded me.

Yet, my professional occupation requires that I keep a direct channel open to Dallas.  That is where our headquarters is situated.  They make the major decisions and determine the course that I follow while serving here.

Periodically I need to be at meetings in Big D.  Getting to the city in the North is a puzzle.  That bewildering choice is due to the nature of flying compared to driving.

I could fly to Dallas.  The actually flying time is only an hour.  However, you know and every commuter knows that air travel is much more than actual flying time.

Houston is so big that it takes and hour to drive to either one of our two airports.  Of course when we all fly we have to arrive at the airport two hours early.  We need to entertain the security folks.

A little arithmetic makes the choice of the journey a puzzle.  To fly takes one hour to commute to the airport plus two hours early arrival for check-in and security and buffer plus the one hour actual flying time.  The total is four hours.

The drive time to Dallas and our headquarters is four hours.  When I fly I have to arrange for transportation once I arrive in Dallas.  If someone picks me up then I do not have transportation around the city once I arrive.

If I drive to Dallas, then I can also leave when I want, makes stops along the way and return when I want.  My seat is always comfortable and frequently my wife joins me so the company is exquisite.  Rest stops on the journey are also up to me.

One of the discoveries on this journey is the meal service en route to our destination.  Remember this is Texas.  In this part of the world BBQ reigns.

Half way between Dallas and Houston is a tasty BBQ location.  It has the unique traveling grill that often marks its location.  The designers shaped it like a giant single action revolver with the BBQ smoke coming out of the barrel.  You can’t see this when you are flying on a plane.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

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IMG_5065Texas BBQ has a common menu.  Chicken is always on the menu.  It is usually served as a half of bird, grilled golden brown and offered with a drenching of BBQ sauce.

There is always some beef option.  Rarely is the an option of beef ribs.  While it is Texas and beef is common here, beef ribs are still uncommon.

However, there is always brisket.  When brisket is offered it comes with options of lean or wet.  Go with the latter.  It is tender, moist, flavorful and you won’t gag on it because lean brisket is so dry.

Pork of course is the meat of choice.  It is tender and full of flavor as well as tender.  My taste buds salivate just thinking about delicious ribs, chops or ham.

There is another choice of pork that is as versatile as any BBQ menu selection.  It is pulled pork.  Flavor is always amazing.  Moisture and tenderness are rarely a disappointment.

Last week I decided that pulled pork was so good that I was going to make it myself.  Yes, I watched a video or two.  Also, I read up on it in my BBQ cook book.

For five hours I smoked a whole piglet on my grill.  On low heat, 200 degrees, I let the steady heat cure the pork with a perfect red band.  Now, the work would  begin.

Inside of our kitchen I laid the pieces of pork out on a chopping board.  Carefully I separated the main parts of the pork.  The aroma was killing me!

To quench the craving I ripped off a piece of hot juicy pork and popped it into my mouth.  It was delicious.  Before I could go on I closed my eyes and slowly chewed on the product produced in my own backyard.

I let the pork cool a bit so that my fingers would not burn.  Then, with methodical care I pulled pieces of pork off the bones.  Once hunks of meat were removed, I shredded the pork chunks into strips.

Our kitchen was filled with great aroma.  Mounds of freshly smoked pork were pile high in different bowls.  I would make sandwiches, tacos, breakfast sides, lunch entrees and dinner main courses from this store of prepared food.

Each time the tender bits and flavorful mouthfuls made me smile.  My bride and I marveled at the fun it was to have a week’s plan of meals all scheduled out after a weekend of preparation by a labor of love.  I sure am glad that God gave us tastebuds!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_4213Getting a chance to slip out of Texas during July is a respite from the searing heat and sticky humidity.  Taking a week to see family made sense.  Yet, it did not take long for the soul to be missing the tug from the Lone Star state.

Texas has a pride that grows on you.  I was not born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could.  That is a standard line for all of us transplants.

It usually gets a knowing laugh from native Texans.  This phrase also brings a warm welcome from the locals.  Soon the mystique grows on everyone who emigrates here.

It is not usually the scenery in Houston that conjures up  the spirit.  Houston is flat with no landscape sensations worth mentioning.

Natural beauty takes place in June when the wildflowers burst into bloom.  Blue skies and puffy cumulus clouds add to the flavor of the state.  Green grasses set off the blues, reds and yellow flowers.

Another natural wonder that we see often are the cloud formations.  Since the land is so flat we watch the spectacular thunderclouds roll in and see jagged flashes of lightning across the skies.  Jacob’s ladders form in the clouds as the sun fights to send its rays on to the earth.

People are a strength in Texas.  The people here have a kindness and hospitality about them that is refreshing.  Texans are likable and they like others in return.  God seems to have added a larger dose of cheer in the average Texan.

While I enjoy a variety of cuisine, Texas BBQ is special.  When the smoker is pumping out the white billows of hickory mixed with the aroma of pork ribs, beef brisket, chicken halves or sausage links the mouth waters up cheeks full of saliva that only knows eating as a solution.  This is the Texas spirit.

While away in Oregon, I saw an opportunity to take my family to some BBQ.  An eatery was recommended.  They served BBQ beef ribs.  I did not have to think about that choice; it was off my lips as soon as the waiter greeted us.

The aromas of the grill wafted through the restaurant.  I was looking forward to my treat.  The plate was mounded with ribs and the sides were just like home.

I sank my teeth into the fare.  At first I was happy.  Then, I knew that I was just encouraging my own spirit.  I missed Texas and BBQ was one of the reason I did.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_2900Of course I am talking about learning to smoke on our new grill.  What other smoking could there be?  This is a good kind of learning.

I read the instructions that came with our grill.  Clearly the instructions matched what the salesman promised me.  I could smoke as well as grill on this versatile unit.  

In the past I have failed and succeeded with efforts to smoke a delicious meal.  Once I did a turkey and it was an instant family hit.  That memorable meal was a great event because it was never to be repeated.

Part of the problem was the smoker.  It was constructed out of aluminum skin walls.  During my subsequent smoking attempts, the cold outside weather made it impossible to control the temperatures.  I threw the bird away after hours of smoking.

Friends have used insulated walled smokers with consistent and amazing results. I did not just envy their culinary skills, I salivated as I indulged on their pork ribs, brisket and chicken.  How was it possible for average guys to prepare food good enough of a classy restaurant?

Common among these grill masters is the same advice.  Temperature control is key.  If you can get a grill or smoker that can finesse the heat, then smoking successfully will be a fulfilling promise.

Then, after turning my back on charcoal grills and propane options and expensive dedicated smokers, I was introduced to wood pellet grills.  This was my entrance into great outdoor cooking for foods that I wanted to serve to my family.

Admittedly, I swallowed hard when I was about to smoke my first batch of wild Texas pork.  A lot of effort went into harvesting these BBQ delights.  Now, with a strong desire to smoke the meat but with a track record of horrible failures, I was reluctant.

I prepared the meat with the mental note that “butchering” may well characterize my lack of ability in trimming the roasts and ribs.  Oh well, my forgiving wife would appreciate my good intentions.  That was my hope anyway.

For nine hours I smoked these large chunks of meat.  I followed the instructions. Afterall, I read them over and over again.  

Finally, at 6pm I served the fare.  My bride and I both smiled, expressed amazement at the delectable results and looked forward to many more repeats of a system that made a smoking BBQ novice like me a success on the culinary path of outdoor cooking.  Miracles do still happen!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_2819For years I took it as a challenge.  Every man does.  There is something about being the backyard BBQ meister that is a part of the man-card validation.

With an open flame, smoke, danger around burning hot metal and of course the constant presence of plenty of  sauce every man dons his apron and grabs his tools.  A turning fork with long tines is a must.  The bigger the basting brush, the better.

It helps to have a football game on in the background.  Baseball will do.  Here down in the south when there is plenty of comfortable weather in the winter, ice hockey will do too.

In the early days I would get the briquettes ready.  Lighting up the charcoal was a matter of timing.  Firing up these morsels needed time to prepare.  Nothing happened quickly.

Once the briquettes were covered with white ash, they were ready to cook up the dinner.  The challenge was chicken.  They always dripped grease while cooking that caused flare ups and inevitably the chicken was served totally black, burned to a crisped.  I have dumped more than one meal in the garbage.

Gas grills were not much better for me.  The grease from cooking chicken pieces always caught fire.  Again, the crispy burned and totally blackened chicken was not uncommon.  It was always frustrating.

If I took the chicken out too early, it wasn’t always cooked thoroughly.  Trying to get them back on the grill or surrendering to the microwave just added to the annoyance.  I really wanted a solution.

Enter the Traeger grill.  These are the smokers designed to burn wood pellets.  The same inventor who came up with the wood pellet stove for heating homes transferred the same concepts of temperature control to a smoker/grill.

I thought through the years of frustration when it came to grilling chicken.  It was time to test our new grill with chicken.  We had already enjoyed beef and lamb.  Now, it was time for my main grilling nemesis.

We had well seasoned chicken legs with lemon and herbs.  They looked great, smelled even better.  Once on the pre-heated grill, I closed the lid.  It was time to trust the indirect heat.

After the time rang, I headed out the backyard with eager anticipation.  The smoke was pumping out of the grill vents.   Wonderful aroma was increasing my anticipation.

Deftly I opened the lid.  When the smoke cleared, I was ecstatic!  The chicken was cooked perfectly!  Yay!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_2808We have been living in Texas now for over a year.  Before we moved to our newly adopted state we divested ourselves of as much stuff as possible.  So many of those items were a part of our lives and we miss them.

One item that we gave away was our BBQ grill.  Sigh.  Cooking over a grill is a thrilling part of a daily chore that puts a lot of fun into one of life’s inevitable chores.  Cooking is a necessity so we might as well do it over an outside grill.

When we grill up a stack of burgers for our guests, the football game is better.  Franks or sausages on the grill make church gatherings in the home especially fun.  A quiet meal for the family with thick steaks sizzling on the barbecue will put a photo in the album.

It was time for us to pick out our next grill.  To make it the best choice possible, I read, shopped and asked a lot of questions.

One of the features that I was hoping to find was a way to do some smoking.  Smoked meats have been given to me by great BBQ chefs and I was hooked.  Whether it was ribs, brisket, sausage or chicken I loved the taste.

When the entrees are served with mouth-watering aromas and the juices are seeping out of whatever you are served, who could not be moved to want to put that kind of culinary skill into a loving meal?  Good smokers with insulated walls are not secured with pocket change.  My budget did not give me that freedom.

There were a few other important ideas floating around in my decision-making tree as well.  I toyed with a return to the briquets in a spherical grill.  Yet, the health benefits of avoiding fuels that send not-so-tasty particles into the food made me hesitate.

Gas grills are common, inexpensive and filled with every imaginable option that you could want. Nevertheless, propane gas fires do not add much to the flavor of the food.  I was looking for an alternative.

I was introduced to wood pellet grills.  Simple, fast, flavorful and smoking meats was a huge option.  Clean burning hardwood pellets left clean up a breeze and the healthy option a reality.

It was Labor Day.  Grilling is a featured part of this holiday.  Sales were all over the internet.  We made our choice.  Our first BBQ meal as Texans was a resounding success! Yum!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_2333Time on the road is filled with reminiscing over past recent visits, sites that we talk about over and over as well as the standard, “What’s for dinner?”  Food is a fun part of travelling.  It takes that place of shopping, cooking, clean up and doing dishes.

Finding places on the road for an enjoyable meal and a break from the many miles on the road takes a little attention.  Sometimes a recommendation from friends guides us.  Other times it is a local who highly recommends an eatery.  Then, in our wonderful age of communication, there is the internet.

Thousands of foodies send in their opinions on great places to eat.  Or of course visa versa.  Five stars are a common standard for amazing food, service, atmosphere and overall experience.  Three stars is acceptable.  However, when you are looking for a place that you will recommend to others, four stars is a minimum.

In the town of Johnson City, Texas, there is not a lot there.  It is a sleepy town  without a lot of busyness that plagues IMG_2332the big cities.  Essentials like a gas station, market, shops, General Dollar and a few places to eat is par for the course.

Our internet search led us to Ronnie’s Ice House.  It was a peculiar name.  We passed it once.  The name is not precisely correct.  Ronnie’s is actually named Ronnie’s Pit BBQ.

When we stepped inside the aroma was mouth-watering.  We checked the menu and decided that it was lunchtime so we ordered a half chicken plate and we would split it.  That was a decision that we would later regret.

Comfortably seated, we gave our thanks to God for the meal.  Then He surprised us.  Each of us took our first bite, stopped, raised our eyebrows, looked at each and then we looked at each other’s portion of the split lunch plate.

IMG_2343It was wonderful!  The tenderness, juicy flavor was remarkable.  Usually, BBQ chicken can easily dry out.  This one was moist throughout.

Ronnie has a technique to keep the juices in and the delicious BBQ smoke flavor permeating through the meal.  I complemented Ronnie on our way out.  He then invited me to see his pits out in back.  I was overwhelmed with the fragrant smoky signals that the food was about done.

We saw each other for dinner in Fredericksburg later that evening.  I introduced him to our friends.  If you are ever in Johnson City, Texas, stop by Ronnie’s for a sumptuous meal.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

When you’re in Texas, you have to schedule at least one meal at a BBQ joint.  Texans have a way of putting ribs on a grill and making the mouth of the most discriminating taste water up a tsunami.  They have been doing for so long and they pride themselves in this culinary delight.

In addition to pork ribs, they also waft the olfactory nerves with the aroma of perfectly smoked brisket.  This cut of beef is tough, undesirable but amazingly transformed by the knowledgable Cowboy grill master.  The coloring is amazing and your mouth waters uncontrollably when you get close.

Sausage is a winner too.  The sweats on a link of Polish or Brats signal that it’s time sit down for dinner.  They are juicy, succulent and flavorful.

Add some baked beans, slaw and okra and the meal makes a perfectly balanced presentation.  It tastes great too.  Locals directed us to a nearby BBQ favorite.

We ordered our meal and sat down.  Then, I paused not only to thank the LORD for the meal, but also to take in the surrounding ambiance appropriate for our dining pleasure.  Scenery helps the experience of dinner very special.

On one wall there is a row of amazing elk heads.  They are shoulder and head mounts.  Their racks are stunning.

Interspersed among the elk are deer heads, game fish replicas and varmints of every kind.  Another wall had a young bear climbing through the limbs of a tree.  Then, to top it all off there was a full mount of an 8 foot tall grizzly on its hind legs challenging the world.

A moose head with a representative set of antlers welcomed guests at the front door.  A few game birds were also mounted to give the royalty of the air some space as well.  Then, taking up its appropriate space was an American Bison in all of its shaggy glory.

But, I had to laugh at the central decorative piece.  It was a mastodon.  The shaggy head of the ancient elephant was massive.

The BBQ sauce had some kick to it.  Every one of the pork ribs was tender and juicy at the same time.  That is what good grilled food tastes like.

Put it all together with the beautiful company of my bride and it was a perfect man’s night out.  Great food, fabulous wife and amazing trophies from someone who Biblically subdued the earth make for a perfect evening in Texas.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

We finished a wonderful day 1 on our Oregon adventure.  After a few glitches with our GPS and wandering around in Klamath Falls we found our hotel.  Sight unseen and internet information only I had booked a place by faith. 

Have you ever had the fun of trusting the providence of God with the best decision-making experience from your past?  This was one of those times.  Yvonne and I kept looking and wondering, is that the place?
“Oh, good, that’s not it.” 
“Hey, maybe that’s it!”
“Nope, that’s a bowling alley.” 
“Hmm…what’s that address again?” 
“Should we ask for directions?”
“There it is! Eureka!  We found it.  Wow, that looks very nice.”

We checked in, got settled and realized that we were very hungry.  To find a place we cruised the main thorough fare.  Automatically, we crossed all of the “fast food places” off the possibilities. 

 A restaurant flashed a sign that immediate seating was available.  There were a lot of cars outside.  The eatery advertised BBQ and steaks.  I had a strong pull and Yvonne agreed.    

When we sat down I felt the ease of a body tired from hours of driving to enjoy the relaxation of the moment.  Our waitress was friendly and helped us identify their premier dishes.  Next, a spiritual awakening occurred.

I am a huge fan of BBQ beef ribs.  Sure, I like pork ribs too, but beef ribs are not a common offering.  But, there they were on the menu and highly recommended by our waitress.

Explaining the physical, spiritual and psychological  rejuvenation is not possible with mere human words. Instead, it was a touch of providence that blessed our first day of vacation.  My order was sealed.

We waited for our food with pleasant conversation, rehearsing our days adventures.  But, I talked and listened only to contain my mouth from watering in anticipation of tonight’s special treat. To our surprise and our waitresses, the food arrived swiftly and the aroma alone made me smile.

The sight of BBQ beef ribs is a feast for the eyes as well as for the palate.  Like connoiseur of beef, this delivery is as much common art as it is culinary experience.  No, I’m not exaggerating.

My memories of this meal are fixed.  The first taste was as delightful as the last.  Yvonne laughed at my face full of BBQ sauce and accented with a huge smile.

photo credit: brucefong photography

When Yvonne and I packed up our stuff in Michigan and made the big move to California we remember some of the stuff that we left behind. It was tough to part with things that made memories.  A BBQ grill is one of those worldly things that make great memories happen.

The fragrance of a smokey aroma enhances Spring days.  It defines the summer months. It even helps us close out Autumn, declaring the coming of the season of Winter.

Diehards attach their grills to their pick-up truck tailgate. Football season takes on a community experience when the grill is fired-up and cooking begins. That unit limited to this world breeds great experiences in life.

Laughter, smiles, conversation, teasing and relaxation are all a part of what BBQ experiences are all about. It is the grill unit that takes center stage as a facilitator, a centerpiece or a connector for the gathering in our lives. For over a year we have been without this piece of life.

We left our grill back in the Midwest. Someone else is enjoying the benefits of new experiences and memories that it brings. For a year we had no access to a yard, a San Francisco compromise for so many.

Now, we are renting a house. We now have a backyard to use! It’s time to get a new grill.

There are so many choices. I went to a home improvement store. Several brand names with various models filled up the floor.

Prices match options and features. Styles are similar but the knobs, percentage of metal and dials all add to the unique aesthetics of the unit. But, can the thing cook?

Big is not what I need. In fact I like a grill that is more suited to cooking for my family of seven than scores. Something durable and easy to clean make sense to me.

All of our lives we have moved more than the average person. That way when we move again maybe just maybe we can take our next grill with us. It gives some stability to life.

When the kids are coming over it’s time to take the wonderfully marinated entrees that Yvonne creates and toss them on the grill. Sweet smelling smoke starts the taste buds tingling. Family gathers, I thank God for His provision and we dig in with new memories with each savory grilled-to-perfection bite.

photo credit: google image

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