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  • My father loves his meat. He loves the cooking, the carving, the total grease down eating. Mention ribs and rubs and pit style barbeque and he’s your man. On skewers or spits or slapped on the grill. Sausages, patties, or butterflied flatties. And for a real meat lover, the years I raised pigs out on the island were the highest of high water meat times.

    Raising a pig or two is one thing but for a few years I had as many as five pigs out back churning up new garden space and clamouring for feed. On the island, pig time and burning time coincided in late fall and early winter. I needed cool days and crisp, frosty nights to keep the meat fresh and the first dusting and more of snow on the ground to make burning brush safe.

    The island had once been cleared except for tidy woodlots, orchards and patches of trees around ledge and ground too rough or rocky to be usable for anything else. But the islands were abandoned in the early years of the 20th century and by the mid-80s the once clear fields and wind swept pastures were all dark bristling spruce forests. I took them on with a will working to beat back the tide of dense growth. Each year I cut and stacked and heaped the brush and chunks too gnarly and knotty to split into mountainous piles to burn when the first snows made it safe to torch them.

    If the timing was perfect, the piles were bone dry, the ground had 2-3 inches of snow, and all I’d do was splash a gallon of mixed diesel and used motor oil on a pile, drop a match and step back. On a good day I would have 7 or 8 piles going and spend the time cutting and hauling more and more to keep them fed. All my clothes were pocked with burn marks from the fall of embers and when the wind flattened the blazes the meadow was so thick with smoke that the sun became a dull, reddish-gold disk.

    Fires like this needed to be cooking something.

    The pigs fit right in. They spent the summer and fall in moveable pens that I shifted round about the stump littered ground letting them root and dig to their hearts content. They ate apples and restaurant scraps and cooked grain mixed with sugar beets and potatoes. By burning time they weighed upwards of 300 pounds. They were ready.

    So, in December, when the days were short and cold enough to store the meat I set up the trestle table set with butcher’s paper and freezer wrap, stood the tripod over the 55 gallon drum, sharpened the knives, and hauled out my .30-.30.

    The dog knew I was serious when the rifle came out. She vanished under a bed and I’d only feel her wet nose digging into my hand later, as she checked in to make sure I was doing OK. Then she sniffed the around the silent pen, tentatively licked the blood stained ground, poked her nose into the buckets with hearts and livers and kidneys, and walked wide around the bright shell casings.

    I hauled most of the pigs off to the harbour filling my orders for whole pigs and half pigs.
    Virgil paid me for his half. How much it cost you to raise ‘em, he asked.
    I shrugged. Hours or cash money, I asked.
    He laughed.
    Fella’s got to keep busy, Virge, I said.
    He eyed me close. Seems like you keep busy enough, he allowed.
    I shrugged. Virgil grew up on an island. He knew how it was.
    It isn’t the money, Virge, I said. He always paid me $25 extra. Waved me back if I said anything.

    But I always saved the prime slabs for burning time. Most years, family made it out to the island for Christmas. It was a time to have the island to ourselves, to celebrate, to feast, and to burn brush

    We torched pile after pile, shed layers until we were down to T-shirts under the chill December sun and stood back from time to time to watch the smoke swirl and the sparks dance high, high into the air.

    Between hauling brush and chunking trees we drank gallons of homemade Kahlua and coffee. Sometime during the day we stuck the big cast iron pot of beans in under the edge of one bonfire along with piles of foil wrapped, thin skinned potatoes.

    Around midday, when the coals in one of the fires levelled out to a dull red glow I laid out a length of reinforcing wire over rebar and set out quartered pigs drenched in sauce.

    My father elected himself the royal rib turner and he tended the slabs with a 10 foot pole. Turning them and shifting the coals to keep the heat even.

    In the early twilight, we gathered on sections of log set round a fire we’d allowed to die down to a shimmering mass of coals and ate ribs and slices dipped in sauce, ate sweet baked beans, wiped off our plates with ragged slabs of fresh baked bread, blew on forkfuls of buttery potatoes, and ended with wedges of pie. Apple and squash and cranberry.

    Around us the sparks spiralled and danced, the shadows loomed and retreated around the raw edges of the meadow.

    I think I’ll have a little more of those ribs, my father announced.

    I smiled and thought, Yeah, Like I said Virge, it isn’t about the money.
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