As we've done each year, we celebrated the Critter's birthday and the welcome onset of summer by inviting pretty much everybody we've met in England over to our house to share a beer and eat a very large pig and a farmyard's worth of chickens and other stewed, grilled or deep-fried livestock in the best Southern tradition.
Unlike in past years, this year was a very low stress event, for some reason. Perhaps because, in doing this for four years running, we had the preparations down to a pretty exact science. Perhaps because we're leaving in under a month. Or maybe it's because my Bride is Uber Project Planner, with every movement in the week leading up to the event choreographed in an exact sequence that leaves no possible room for human error.
The only thing that's missing from this plan that caused us any concern at all was the weather, which, this being England, is predictable only in its near-uniform chance of precipitation. For the week preceding the event, we obsessed over the reports from the BBC ('oh, don't worry, they never get anything outside of the London area right') or the Weather Channel ('oh, never mind that prediction; they hardly know where England is on the map') or Metro UK ('I've never even heard of that one before. It says rain too? Damn them. Damn them to hell.') I just repeated my yearly mantra: If it rains, just be prepared to eat a lot of pig, because we're having this BBQ, even if nobody shows up but me, you and the band.
The Friday before the event dawned grey, windy, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and occasionally spitting rain. Which prompted what was an only slightly panicked call to a friend with a marquee. Saturday morning, as I sat outside in the back courtyard at 7 am tending the first batch of chicken frying in the deep fryer with an umbrella to shield the hot oil from the rain, I thought that we were done for. But by 8am, blue sky was peaking through, and the day turned out sunny and pleasant, if a little windy. And the tables were absolutely groaning with food by the beginning of the afternoon when folks showed up.
The Critter went back and forth on the type of cake she wanted this year. Thanks to some book or another the Critter had been reading earlier this year which explained blood, and mucous, your endocrine system, and other things that turn my stomach, which kept me from ever wanting to be a doctor as my father, the surgeon so dearly desired, the Critter had been obsessed with the human body, and insisting on a cake which looked like something out of the more detailed pages of Gray's Anatomy.
She finally settled on a garden cake (thank heavens), which my bride lovingly made from scratch once again. See that grass? Each blade individually piped. Put that in your chafing dish and smoke it, Martha Stewart.
The other bit of prepared-in-advance craftiness this year were our sponge balls. In past years, we filled crates full of water balloons for the kids to use in a splash-filled cool-off match up. But that took about 3 hours of filling and tying off fist-sized balloons in advance, and left me, at the end of the day, combing a field the size of a football pitch, looking for little colored bits of rubber explosions.
My Bride had the brilliant idea of tying together strips of your basic household sponge (preferably fresh from the package, and not from scrubbing last night's lasagna bake), and making a Koosh-style water filled projectile weapon.
We put a tub of water in the middle of the field, dropped the sponge balls around it, lined the kids up, and got completely soaked and filthy for twenty minutes. And at the end of the party, each kid took a sponge ball home with them. Clean up was a cinch!
For more adult entertainment, we once again laid on a fantastic local bluegrass band. There's nothing that warms the cockles of my little American heart like hearing a bunch of Brits playing The Battle of New Orleans with gusto.
The marquee ended up being useful for keeping the band in a relative bit of shade for the day, instead of roasting in the sun, which meant we all got to enjoy their playing or longer. (Unlike last year, when I was worried the banjo player was going to pass out in the middle of Uncle Pen from sun stroke)
I'm always surprised at how much Brits enjoy these events. Our annual barbeque party is the antithesis of most British get togethers I've been to. The food is a mess of greasy or eat-with-your-fingers dishes. Fried chicken, cracklin' pig, brunswick stew, corn salad, collard greens, grits casserole. There are few chairs to be seen - mostly just blankets spread on the grass, and people enjoying home made lemonade, iced tea, and cold beer. But thankfully, everyone tolerated our American whims, and really got into the spirit of things.
Maybe part of what made the whole thing feel more laid back than ever before was the number of bluegrass musicians in the crowd. In the past couple of years since I picked up the banjo, I've met a number of musicians in the area who play bluegrass at the local jam session each week, and I invited a bunch of them out to enjoy the afternoon with us.
At one point in the afternoon, we called everybody up to the front who had an instrument with them. And I had consumed enough Corona by the third set to venture inside and pick up my banjo and join them. And I know just enough by now to sort of look like I know what I'm doing in front of others.
But I think what made me proudest of all was the fact that the Critter got up with us and led us in a round of Aunt Rhodie. Ok, so she wasn't playing in quite the same rhythm as the rest of us, but the fact that a just-turned-6 year old got up in front of the crowd and played made me fit to burst with pride.
What you don't see here is me bursting out laughing about halfway through this song. I turned around to look at how the Critter was doing after we got through the first verse and the chorus, only to see her sitting down on the ground, putting her violin away. She had finished playing the song, and didn't think much of the idea of playing it through again for the second verse. She looked up at the rest of us like "what the hell are you people thinking? I'm done, chitlins. Pass me another piece of fried chicken."
All in all, it was a fantastic way to wrap up our stay here in the British Isles. We had around 140-150 people show up throughout the day, and pretty much picked that big, happy pig clean, and ate about five dozen chickens worth of fried goodness. The kids had a blast, and the parents seemed to come away happy.
I'm not sure that we'll ever be fortunate enough to have a venue that lends itself so well to welcoming our friends and neighbors like we've had here in England, with all the fields and open space around our home. (Think about the parking logistics. Seriously.)
I'm unspeakably glad for this last event here we had such ridiculously good weather, in spite of all the forecasts, and thankful for the friendship that we've found here. As much as we're looking forward to moving back to the U.S., it's the people here that we're going to miss when we go.
Thanks, Britain, for the memories.