We all have that place, a place that doesn’t just occupy a physical location but holds the best memories of our youth in our hearts. A place where families meet for a Memorial Day Pig Pickin’ and teenagers with their new driver’s license take their first trip without parents to go swimming and tubing until their arms can barely lift above their shoulders.
For me that place is Lake Gaston, where my family has had a home for nearly 30 years now in the town of Littleton. This was the place I looked forward to in the early spring as an adolescent when I knew that summer break was just around the corner. This was the place that as an adult I yearned for on those Fridays at work that seemed to stretch on forever until the magical hour when I could hit the road en route to the lake. There are the sounds of your memory that are like a familiar symphony. The choir of Canadian Geese and the unforgettable call of, in my opinion, the most beautiful bird in the animal kingdom: the blue heron. Robert Michener referred to the Heron’s call as a Kraannk sound which when said aloud actually sort of fits, although it might make you stick out. It’s a sign of good luck in my family when you see one flying across the lake, resembling every bit the name given to it by the Susquehannock indians: Fishing-long-legs.
The sound of your mother singing karaoke at the Fourth of July festival in downtown Littleton when you were barely a teenager. More than a few people had to do a double take to make sure they weren’t hearing the real Roberta Flack. Even the music playing out of every wake boat can lend to these feelings, even if it’s music you wouldn’t normally play yourself if someone paid you to (if the bass from the boat sounds like rolling thunder in a summer storm, then maybe it doesn’t need to be so loud). Then there are the smells. A wood-burning fire carried on the air in the middle of summer is just as pleasant as the middle of winter. Even the exhaust from the boat (“Did you remember to winterize it?”) has a certain perfume-like appeal. The most alluring scent of all leads us to one of the best parts of my memories. I’ve seen the smell of a smoked pork shoulder stop someone in their tracks and immediately begin tracking like a bloodhound on the trail of a runaway felon. The intoxicating combination of brown sugar and house dry rub with hickory, cherry, mesquite, or applewood. As you walk up you wonder if there is actually anything cooking in that seemingly quiet vessel with smoke billowing out. Then as you get a foot or two away you hear a drip of that fat fall onto a coal and sizzle and you know it’s real and not a dream.
The mark of a great pitmaster is the smoke ring. This pink line that sits under that precious bark is a sign of how far the smoke has truly made it into the pig. The slower, and lower, and smokier, the better. The smoke ring is like a measuring stick, setting expectations of your guests as soon as you pull the first piece off for a crucial first taste test. To be honest I’ve never seen anyone make any changes after taking this taste test. You just need to know if it’s as perfect as you think it is after waiting a dozen hours. It always is.
My dad is our family pitmaster and he taught me the importance of patience in waiting for the pork to be just right, even though it may be tempting to take a peek every now and then. He taught me that you don’t mess around preparing the coals in the morning so that your guests aren’t eating at 11 p.m. after three failed attempts to get the right temperature. His peach barbecue sauce has become my calling card when introducing new people to the wonders of smoked meats. You can use almost any fruit juice and make something memorable every time.
Sometimes in life we see parallels between memories and so I am reminded of another ring that will always mark my fondest recollections on Lake Gaston. I was lucky enough to ask my wife to marry me on these waters that are so much my home. In case you’re wondering, getting down on one knee on a boat when the wake of a nearby water skier is jostling you is about as difficult as it sounds, but more romantic than you might think.
When my wife and I first met, the lake was the location of some of our first adventures (our third date was a 900-mile round trip to Tennessee if that tells you anything). It took no time at all for her to find the same love I had for taking the canoe around Grandma’s Island and impromptu fishing contests on lazy Saturdays. So, it was an easy decision for me after deciding to pop the question on exactly where I would do it. Not even a minute after she said yes a Blue Heron flew over our boat as if to give his blessing. His greeting was “good luck!” not just for the day, but forever.
At the beginning of this abnormal 2020 I was starting my fourth year in New York City but as the pandemic began in early spring, my wife and I decided to go to the safest place we knew to wait things out. Lo and behold, nearly a year later and we’re making our move to North Carolina permanent, because home is more than just a place, it’s a feeling you revisit time and time again. In all of my years traveling the world I’ve always known that I would come back to “North Cackalacky” as we lovingly refer to it. From the mountains to sea, it truly is an exceptional place and I like to think of Lake Gaston as one of the many gems in our state’s collective ring, alongside other such diamonds as Grandfather Mountain and Ocracoke.
I know it probably already seems like you can’t wait for summer so that you can relive your own memories, and make many new ones. There is just as much beauty on this lake in winter. You just need to remember to keep your distance from the water as tempting as a polar bear dip can be after staring at it’s waters for months imagining yourself on a float with a cold drink when the spring arrives. I’m here to tell you that it will be here sooner than you think and there are many memories to make right now. This will be my first holiday in many years where I actually have a fireplace next to my Christmas tree. Who could have ever guessed that Brooklyn apartments wouldn’t have them?
I’ve added ornaments to the tree over many years just as I’ve added to my cherished collection of these memories. A pontoon boat with Santa having cocktails with his reindeer, and of course a largemouth bass that even as an ornament is probably larger than any I have caught. In this upcoming new year, I hope that you can add some memories to your collection, and I hope that many of them are on the lake. If you need any inspiration, just follow that trail of smoke from the pit smoker. You can help me judge the smoke rings, and maybe even partake in the first bite. If you’re lucky I might even share the recipe, but really we’re all lucky enough just to be on the lake.
PEACH BBQ SAUCE
This recipe can be made using any fruit juice, the more exotic the more unique the flavor. I use the Peach Punch from the Piggly Wiggly in Littleton but try any type you would like! If using fresh juice you may need to add a bit more brown sugar. Also, the Jalapenos are mainly for flavor but the heat can vary so if you’re worried about spice level you can leave them or substitute a green bell pepper.
1 Large Onion
2 Medium sized Jalapenos (or any peppers you like)
1 Cup Ketchup
1 Cup Peach Punch (or any fruit juice)
½ Cup mustard (I use spicy brown but yellow is fine too)
¼ Cup Brown Sugar
½ Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1. Chop the Onion and Peppers and then saute until a little color is showing on the onions,
about 10 minutes.
2. Add in Ketchup, Peach Punch, Mustard, Brown Sugar and Apple Cider Vinegar. Simmer on low for 30 minutes or until the flavors come together to your liking. If you don’t want any chunks from the onions and peppers you can add to a blender and puree.