Over the last few years as I have been enjoying my journey through the culinary world, I have learned a lot, had tons of fun, and prepared some tasty creations (as well as some bad ones). While I have developed numerous skills to use in the kitchen and accumulated countless recipes though, without a doubt my forte when it comes to cooking is my barbecue, specifically my Kansas City style barbecue ribs. I can and do barbecue in several different styles, but my dry rub, Kansas City style is by far the best. My ribs are so moist and tender that when you bite into them the meat just melts in your mouth like butter, and this is while your tastebuds are exploding with delight at the smoky, sweet flavor engulfing them one by one. People have even referred to my delectable ribs as “heavenly meat candy.” Unfortunately, my dry rub recipe is a closely guarded secret that even my own mother does not know, so I cannot share it with you, but I have shared a KC style BBQ recipe on Pinterest that is very good and similar to mine that you will really like. Even more momentous than sharing this recipe however, which is saying a lot since I love barbecue, I am also going to pass on an incredibly important life lesson that you can learn by cooking good barbecue.
On the surface making good barbecue seems pretty simple. You just buy some baby back ribs, lather them up with sauce, and throw them in a nice, hot oven, grill, or rotisserie. Yet it seems like people who use this method always end up with a bunch of ribs that are tough, dry, and flavorless and always wonder why. Now, there are several things wrong with this bare bones, Neanderthal-like approach to barbecuing, but by far both the most costly and most common mistake is that they cooked their meat too fast and at too high of a temperature. Ribs need to be cooked slowly over low heat in order to remain tender and juicy, and by heating them up to 250° F or more (baby back ribs only need to reach a temperature of 175° F to be safe to eat) you are basically turning your great cut of meat into tasteless rubber. That is why every self-respecting barbecue cook remembers the rhyming phrase “always barbecue low and slow.” As critical as going “low and slow” is to making great barbecue though, it is possibly even more crucial in your life, especially when dealing with difficult situations.
When I got my trache when I was 15 years old, my life changed drastically overnight. In addition to just trying to recover from my near death experience, I also had a lot of new things to get used to and had to teach myself new ways of doing certain tasks. One of the things that was very difficult and frustrating to relearn to do was swallowing. As you can imagine, after having your neck sliced open and tubes put in, your throat can be a little sore, making swallowing pretty painful. Also, since I had been medically sedated for several days, it had been a long time since I had last eaten anything by mouth, and like any other muscles, the muscles in my throat had gotten weaker. This was especially dangerous because I was recovering from pneumonia, and if I aspirated (fancy, medical term for “swallow down the wrong pipe”) anything into my already weak lungs by not swallowing correctly, the infection could return. At the same time however, I also needed to consume as much food as possible, because while I was fighting for my life I had lost around 20 pounds. My weight of only 48 pounds when I was admitted was so low that my parents were actually questioned by a social worker from the hospital to make sure they were not neglecting to feed me. I had to get some weight back on quickly to regain my strength and fully recover, but eating was both painful and dangerous due to my difficulty swallowing. You can easily see how this put me in quite the pickle.
I realized that putting the weight back on was going to be a gradual change, since even without any swallowing issues it is only recommended to gain a few pounds a week. I also knew that there would be setbacks occasionally, and that I could not let myself get discouraged or frustrated if there was a day where I just could not eat much because of my throat. This also needed to be a slow process, because if I tried to eat too much, too fast I could end up doing serious harm to my already fragile lungs. Keeping all of this in mind and focusing on the long-term was my way of keeping my emotions low and remembering to take things slow, which would give me the best chance at successfully gaining weight. The importance of adopting this “low and slow” mindset is readily apparent when you contrast it with a more “emotional and fast” approach, as happened between my mother and I.
After I was released from the hospital and returned home, my mom was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted and raw from the horrific experience of nearly losing her son. As a result of this, she did not have the energy or mental ability at the time to see my weight gain situation as I had, which caused some tension between us. In her mind, even though I was home and no longer in danger of losing my life at any moment, I was still on the brink of death. She was convinced that if I did not get my weight up immediately, I was going to end up back in the hospital, or worse. While she understood that swallowing was painful and I was having to learn a whole, new way to eat without inhaling my food, my mother still was fixated on me eating as much as humanly possible. It was not that she could not understand or comprehend the difficult balance between gaining weight and swallowing correctly that I was facing, but her emotions had taken over and convinced her that if she pushed me hard enough I could gain 20 pounds in only a couple of weeks. Our differences in how we saw the situation I was in, my “low and slow” and my mother’s “emotional and fast,” created quite a bit of friction between us, and it even resulted in a lot of tension, some tears, and even a few major blowouts. Thankfully though, after a couple weeks my mom slowly got more rested and regained her control over her emotions, and with the help of my father as mediator we were able to sit down and work things out. Once she understood that my “low and slow” mindset was not me taking the situation lightly, but instead my way of creating the best chance for successfully gaining back some weight, she felt much better and supported my gradual approach. With us now on the same page as far as how to best fatten me up, I was able to successfully put on almost 12 pounds in the three months before Winter hit.
This story from my life is a perfect example of how keeping your cool and taking things gradually, going “low and slow,” can be a critical part of getting through difficult circumstances in your life. Chances are, if I had adopted my mother’s mindset and tried to gain back all of the weight in one meal, I would have ended up damaging my throat, slowing my recovery, or back in the ICU with pneumonia from aspiration. By taking things “low and slow” on the other hand, I was able to safely get back to a healthy weight in a relatively short amount of time, which definitely played a large part in my overall recovery from this tough period in my life. The next time you are getting ready to put some ribs on the grill, remember this story about my mother and I and be sure to cook your meat “low and slow.” It may take some patience and seem like a silly way to barbecue, but by maintaining this cooking method you will end up with ribs that are moist, tender, and full of flavor. More importantly, the next time you are presented with a difficult situation remember to step back and take things “low and slow.” If you keep your emotions in check and realize that great things often take time, you will find success much more easily. Just one more reason why barbecue is one of the greatest things ever. It not only excites your palette and fills your belly, it also carries important life lessons that will bring you success and happiness long after the bones are picked clean.