In Memoriam: Hollis Coffman Smith (1921 – 2012)

24 Jun

On June 16, 2012, my dad Hollis Coffman Smith passed away. He was 90 years old and had been ill for over a year. His passing was not unexpected nor was it un-planned for. My brother, mother and I all had made peace with the inevitability of his death some time ago. Still, his death was sudden and despite the expectations and planning, it still was a shock for my family. When word came from the nursing home were Dad had lived for the past 16 months, my brother and I started scrambling to get from where we were to where we needed to be. I was able to get to the farm late the next afternoon, while my brother made it in the following afternoon, thanks to packed flights and perhaps less than helpful airline personnel. Still, we managed to get to the farm, spend time with Mother, make the arrangements and plan a funeral service, then greet friends and family. It was a long and stressful week. Still, being together in the place we grew up with our respective families was soothing for brother and me.

I knew on Sunday when I got to the farm, there likely wouldn’t be anything thawed for dinner and there isn’t any place much to eat out in the country near the farm. I also knew that we would need to feed family and friends and that there would be a lot of food delivered to the house over the next few days, there was something I needed to cook. So, on my way to the farm, I grabbed some steaks out of the freezer and stopped to buy a couple of Boston butts.

My plan was to cook the steaks for my Mother and nephew Sunday night, then cook the butts on Monday to have at the house for the rest of the week. Now, one thing I’ve never had to worry about at the farm is having cooking appliances for smoking and grilling. My Dad was a life-long collector of grills and smokers – so I come by my habit honestly. At the farm, there probably are a half dozen grills, at least three smokers in various sizes and of various designs and perhaps a dozen “potential” grills and smokers. These “potential” grills and smokers are large and small metal fabrications that once served another purpose but which my Dad, in his eye, could see the potential for the conversion of the item into a grill or smoker. Add to that about a half-dozen or so “fish cookers” designed to heat oil with propane for frying fish and you get a pretty good idea of the way Hollis collected grills.

To my Dad, no cooking device was beyond salvation. He had for many years two Weber “Smokey Joe” mini-kettle grills that were abandoned in campgrounds because the sockets where the legs attached to the bowl of the grills had rusted out. Dad figured out that the little grills would fit perfectly into metal milk crates that used to be plentiful on the farm, so he sat them into the milk crates and they continued to cook campground dinners as Mom and Dad traveled in one of their Airstreams for years to come. One of my Dad’s smokers, a 30+ year old “bullet” smoker, has a pan in the bottom of the lower section that holds the charcoal. When I went to use it a couple of years ago, I notice that the bottom of the bowl had rusted out. No problem: Dad simply fashioned a replacement bottom out of some ultra- heavy sheet aluminum to cover the rusted out spots in the charcoal bowl and never missed a beat.

From my Dad, I acquired my love of the grill at an early age. I have photos of my Dad grilling steaks in his trademark low-back overalls on a little cast-aluminum kettle grill. I don’t remember the brand-name, but had a chance to buy one out of a lady’s front yard a few years ago and didn’t do it – I wish I had. I loved watching Dad grill steaks – he only turned them once – and burgers. These were the most frequent grilled menu items at our house, and I looked forward to those nights with an anticipation that can hardly be described in any terms other than “drooling.” The steaks were almost always sirloins – and not the “top sirloin” cuts that you see in stores now, but full-cut sirloins, with a piece of tenderloin attached and with bones that ranged from small and circular to perhaps four inches long. The meat nearest the bone was always the most tender, and I loved it when I got to “gnaw” the bone! I also learned from my Dad that steaks should be served medium-rare. Burgers were thick, with plenty of fat and would come off the grill with a crisp and tasty crust, cooked no more than medium. Add a Sunbeam bun, a health slice of sweet onion and fresh tomato from Dad’s garden, and there was little on earth that could compare to that the taste of those burgers.

Indeed, Dad was a grill sergeant. He was confident and poised around a grill, was constantly experimenting and I only recall one – exactly one – grilling disaster, and that was not his fault. George, the white German Shepard that was my constant childhood companion, once swiped a sirloin off Dad’s grill when he came inside to refresh his bourbon. We laughed about that for years to come – although it was not quite so humorous that night when we had to stretch one sirloin to feed the family and a couple of special guests!

Dad also cooked more than his share of Boston butts over the years, often with his greatest of friends Homer Neal Lewis in the carport of the Lewis’ house in Auburn, Alabama the night before an Auburn football game. There weren’t any thermometers on the 55-gallon drum grill that Neal kept on his carport, and nobody owned a Thermapen, either. Everything was done by instinct and feel and smell. The cooking was “hot and fast” and the barbequed pork always had a crisp and tasty bark that softened just enough when tossed with Neal’s wife Eloise’s homemade BBQ sauce. The meat was served on game day – we didn’t tailgate then like we do now – at the Lewis house and a dozen or more guests, family and friends would always rotate through the house before the game and more still would come by after the game. The menu was always the same, was always delicious and there was always plenty to eat.

Perhaps, however, Dad was most skilled at cooking barbequed chicken. There was no shortage of chicken cookers, depending on the size of the crowd he was cooking for. The “pits” ranged from the aforementioned bullet smoker/Weber Smokey Mountain wannabe to a couple of heavy metal “box” pits that Dad had made in the welding shop at the vocational school where he was the director. Those box pits are still in use (and one of them will be the subject of an upcoming post) and could cook a dozen or more chickens at a time. The cooking was low and slow with the chickens. They were cooked in halves and they cooked for about 4 hours over Ole Diz charcoal (always Ole Diz charcoal – I asked him why Old Diz once and he replied “because it’s cheap!”) and near the end of the cook, when the chicken halves were almost ready (when the leg would turn freely in the socket), Dad would take each half chicken and “dunk” it in a large pot containing Momma’s version of Eloise Lewis’ barbeque sauce. The chicken would then go back on the smoker until the sauce set. Sometimes, the chicken would get just the slightest bit of char on the skin, which made it especially tasty. My beautiful wife, Melissa, now a vegetarian (go figure) says to this day the best chicken she has ever eaten was cooked on Daddy’s back porch on the bullet smoker with the assistance of Dad’s longtime friend Dan Lott.

One of my favorite memories of Dad’s barbequed chicken was from my high-school years – more precisely, from my Junior Prom. My date and I both were wearing white. She was wearing a long white dress with some colorful stitching on the front while I was wearing a pure white tuxedo – we were stylin’. Mom and Dad offered to cook dinner for us before the prom and because I was perpetually broke in those days (bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie did not prepare one for a fancy dinner on the town), we quickly accepted. I was so busy making preparations for the prom and working the day of the dance, I didn’t pay any attention to the menu for the evening. When my date and I arrived for dinner, we discovered that Dad had cooked – you guessed it – Barbequed Chicken, just dripping with tomato based barbeque sauce. I think we covered ourselves with t-shirts or football jerseys or something so we wouldn’t end up wearing our dinner to the prom because as anyone who has eaten barbeque chicken can attest, if you aren’t wearing some of it on your clothes afterward, you didn’t do it right.

These stories go on-and-on – sometimes, my wife might say “on-and-on-and-on-and-on” and she might be right. But the memories are precious to me, and from these few stories of my Dad and his grills, you might be able to see where I got my love of grilling and collecting.

God Bless You, Daddy. We love you and we miss you. May you rest in peace and may all the Saints in Heaven enjoy your barbeque chicken with Eloise’s barbeque sauce as much as we did here on earth.

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6 Responses to “In Memoriam: Hollis Coffman Smith (1921 – 2012)”

  1. Melissa Kessler Smith June 24, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    What a sweet testiment to your dad! I love you Pat Smith. – Missy

  2. Robin Martin June 24, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    Oh, Pat you made me cry! I so miss the 4th of July get-togethers at the lake with Granddaddy & Hollis cooking all day and laughing , talking & playing games late into the night. Thanks for the memories! Don’t you know he and Mimi are having a grand ole time!

  3. Phellepa June 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Like Budweiser, “YOU”VE SAID IT ALL”. What a great story; and I will give you a few to share; like the time they dropped the chicken on the ground, put it back on the grill and kept on cook’en; or the time they all sat on the same side of the picnic table at once and dumped the BBQ’ed rabbit on the ground; oh, the memories!!!

    • bbqesq1 June 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      There may have been bourbon involved! In fact, I am quite certain of it!

  4. Steve Blake June 25, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    Great post Pat. Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry for your loss. It brought back memories about my grandfather cooking chickens on an outdoor pit he fashioned from concrete blocks and chicken wire. He mopped them with a mixture of vinegar, butter, salt & pepper. I also thought about my dad cooking steak and burgers. Always good. On a technical side note – that cast aluminum grill was probably a Portable Kitchen grill manufactured in Arkansas. I had one that I gave to somebody when I “upgraded” to a Weber.

    • bbqesq1 June 25, 2012 at 4:47 am #

      Steve, thank you for your comment. Its amazing how good that food tasted when we were growing up. The cast aluminum grill wasn’t a Portable Kitchen. We still have Dad’s PK. It’s at least 40 years old and we cooked steaks on it Sunday night at the farm!

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