How to Smoke Salmon
My son Sam and I stand side by side in our tiny backyard in Providence, shivering. It’s late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, the sky a battleship gray and snowflakes falling furiously around us. I have to squint up all six feet five inches of Sam when I talk to him. At seventeen, although he is man-sized, he still has a round baby face and the final hurrah of blond in his darkening hair.
“Do we just stand here?” I ask Sam.
“We have to tend it,” he says.
It is the smoker I got for Christmas, and Sam and I are smoking all kinds of pork—loin, ribs, chops—for a New Year’s Eve supper. When I watched him start to put the smoker together, the instructions still in the box, I couldn’t help but remember all the Transformers and Leggos he used to construct without ever referring to the directions. Some things never change, I think as he adjusts air vents and reads the temperature dials. And other things, I think with a pang in my heart, change a lot. Like: the piles of college applications on the desk upstairs, the SAT study guide beside Sam’s bed, the schedule of auditions hanging on the kitchen bulletin board.
Soon, theater programs around the country will be sending Sam their decisions. Which means in the not so distant future, Sam will go away to college in Pittsburgh or Chicago or Ithaca. I swear, yesterday he had to stand on a stool to layer the sliced apples in the pan for apple crisp. I used to lift him into the grocery cart with one swoop, and teach him how to choose a ripe avocado.
Now he regularly makes polenta for dinner, bakes bouche de noels, feeds my husband and me almost daily.
“Needs more water,” Sam announces. He is blurry in the snow, moving back inside to refill the jug.
Eleven hours. That’s how long it took for that meat to smoke perfectly. At a certain point, I went back into the house, to the warmth of the fire in the kitchen fireplace. But Sam stayed out there, the snow becoming an official blizzard, the wind increasing. He learned how to use that smoker that night, and for months afterward he smoked clams and oysters, tomatoes and garlic for salsa, briskets and more ribs.
Spring came, and with it those college acceptances. I watched Sam’s face light up whenever an email dropped in his box with good news. He had wanted to be an actor since he was eight, and now he was on his way to a BFA program six hours from our home in Providence. For his own going away party, Sam smoked pork tenderloins. I looked out the kitchen window at him tending that thing. It was a mystery to me how it worked; I just let Sam be the smoke master. Around me, his half packed duffel bags lay on the floor. A box of books. Linens for his dorm room bed. The next day, our bellies full, we drove him to college.
The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real. In an instant, family dinner changes, shrinks, quiets considerably. The smoker sits, alone and untended, amid the falling leaves. Then another winter, another snowstorm. But this time the smoker remains unused, half-hidden in snow.
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