Monday, August 14, 2006


Each year, my family has a reunion on the last Sunday of July, which is as near to my late mother's birthday as we can get it. We continue the tradition as a tribute to her memory and try to get as many members of our huge collection of relatives as we can attract. Some years, the reunion looks like the congregation of people at Times Square on New Year's Eve. Other years, the number of participants dwindle, but we still manage to salute the large family and the woman who bore twelve children and added huge numbers to the world's population, now several generations strong.

This year, the reunion was held in a State Park Pavilion rented for the occasion. Everyone who could attend made the usual preparations for the day, ice chests and coolers filled with beverages, kids garbed in loose summer clothing, lawn chairs packed, car trunks jammed full, and the expectation of a sunny, pleasant day. Which is was!

A few year's ago, my brother-in-law, Joe, decided that he was tired of the usual picnic fare of fried chicken. He wanted, he said, to try having hot dogs, or variations of hot dogs like Polish Sausage, Keilbasa, Bratwurst, etc. Joe is a Chef and has plied his craft for many years. He was the executive Chef of the Glass House, the Ford cafeteria, and has prepared meals for various members of the Ford family.

The tradition of cooking is firmly established in Joe's family. His father was a Chef, and brought his expertise from Switzerland, leaving his family behind until he became established. Then, when Joe was about twelve years old, the family came to America. Joe's father worked in many of the prestigious restaurants in Detroit, as did an uncle who also emigrated. Then Joe himself became a Chef, as did his son, Robert, whom we all call Bobby. All had successful careers in the area of well-prepared cuisine and Joe's ability became legendary in our family. Joe still manages the restaurant he owns in a nearby Michigan community, where his kitchen skills keep the crowds coming in daily.

He introduced us all to his magnificent hot dogs and sausage, flavored with a faint tinge of woodsmoke, that charcoal ambrosia, browned to perfection, and served on a soft bun. We chowed down like hungry cannibals around a plump prisoner. Such a relief from Fried Chicken! Such a fat-dripping, utterly unhealthy, delicious feast, dripping with catsup and mustard, topped with Joe's chopped onions and tempting the palate with dreams of culinary delight!

However, this year, my sister called me just before the reunion. Joe, she said, was suffering some health problems. He was struggling with high blood pressure. She felt that standing before that hot grill preparing hot dogs and sausage for so many hungry people was detrimental to Joe's health and was bound to cause his blood pressure to soar.

Not wanting to contribute to Joe's high blood pressure, I listened as she suggested we do away with hot dogs entirely and go back to Fried Chicken. I didn't think this would work. Our family had been introduced to the delights of hot dogs and I knew that some would bring them, even if I could have suggested such a Ban.

Instead, I said, I would spread the word. Anyone wanting hot dogs would have to cook their own. Joe was to be "cut off at the pass." Somehow, Joe was to be maneuvered away from the grill, lest the heat cause his blood pressure to soar skyward.

So, everyone came to the reunion prepared to participate in the effort to salvage Joe's health. The grill was started up. The men formed a block to exclude Joe, who hovered around the edge of this group like a Mother Bear worried about her cubs. He circled to the left and to the right, stood in disgruntled confusion, then finally took a seat. Someone handed him a hot dog on a bun and he ate it, feeding half of it to Jedi, who sat at his feet in her "begging" position.

It was as though an Oscar winner had appeared in a crowd and been completely ignored. It was as if a famed politician had been excluded from making a speech! The Master Chef sat back and stared at the amateurs running the grill, cooking lumps of meat without the expert addition of flavors and sauces, minus the skilled hand of the culinary expert.

I'm sure he felt left out, and perhaps a little angry. I am sure that his blood pressure soared!

I recognize the feeling. After retiring from the newspaper, I have read particularly well-written articles and felt a stab of envy. I have left the realm of being in the hub of society, in the center of the action, to the frequently numbing condition of anonymity and ennui. It is not a good feeling and must be chased away with activity and interests, but at certain moments, it hits it must have with Joe at the family reunion.

There will be more reunions and, God willing, Joe will be able to attend. And, if that grill is fired up, if that charcoal heats and simmers, so help me no person in this family will eat a hot dog that isn't prepared by Joe. He is our Master Chef, our head cook. He is the only one who can prepare a hot dog correctly.

Sometimes, the best-laid, well-intentioned plans can backfire. Sometimes one shouldn't try to dabble in the art of "doing things correctly." We all risk our health at times.....trying too hard, walking too far, working too long, eating too much....oh, the list is endless! But that feeling of confusion and neglect is the biggest health risk of all! Joe deserves his moment in front of the hot grill....and we deserve the chance to pay him homage by chowing down his hot dogs, juices dribbling down our chins, the pleasure on his face for providing his knowledge for the enjoyment of our family as great as the flavor of the hot dog itself. Just as an artist beams when his creativity is applauded, Joe shall have his moment in the warmth of the sun....or, the heat of the grill!