• Meeting my first 'smoker'

    I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had been fortunate to be taken to a 'cook out' whilst lecturing at the California State Parks Conference in Malibu. I have to admit that Malibu, or the part that I saw was not what I expected. Mountains and hills seemed to surround me wherever I went. There were also, naturally, a number of State parks in the area.

    Our cook out took place in Malibu Creek State Park, a huge area used for camping and walking. The park is famous for a number of reasons. It is a well-used area for the production of TV and films such as MASH and earlier than that it was the set for a name film called “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” starring Cary Grant in 1948. The house that was built for the film was right next to our cook out. The original house was built with small door frames to make Cary Grant look taller than he actually was. Today the house is used as a lodge for the Park Ranger and yes the door height has been increased.

    Our hosts for the evening were the famous magician Frank Padilla Jnr and his lovely wife Jean. When we arrived at the park Frank was stood in front of his trailer and next to a strange looking contraption that is called a 'smoker'. In the UK this contours up a vision of someone with a cigarette in their mouth, but this smoker was a piece of technical engineering. As the picture shows, there is a small box at one end and this is where the coals go. The heat is pulled through the large barrel cooking the food and the smoke exits the chimney at the other end. The picture does not show the flat grill on the far side of the numerous compartments in which to keep cooking tools.

    As Frank explained how the process works he put me to work with a very large bag of prawns. This was to be the appetiser. Frank covered the prawns in spices and spilled them on to the heated plate. It was my job to keep turning them until they were cooked. This did not take too long and Frank gave me the honour of trying the first one. What he didn’t tell me was that I had to take them out of the shell first so I ended up eating a spicy prawn and crunchy shell! And boy where they spicy. One of the other guests had bought sliced apples covered in cinnamon and they were the perfect antidote to the heat of the spices. Nevertheless the prawns went down well and quickly began to be eaten.

    My next task was to cut the meat. Not only had I not done this before but I had not even heard of the cut of meat - tri tip. Frank explained that this was meat from the groin area and is very tasty. When Frank opened the 'smoker' I saw that the meat resembled about 12 large boomerangs. The meat was thick and covered in a specially prepared rub that is family secret. Being a bit exasperated that I was about to cut the meat wearing a bright pink pullover Frank insisted that I wear an apron and then gave me a huge knife.

    The lesson in carving started with an explanation that I had to cut the meat with the grain as this made it easier to eat. This involved slicing the meat at the point and then cutting the tri tip in half and carving each half. I quickly caught on and was slicing away. The problem was that we were surrounded be people eager to try the steak. As quick as I was cutting it pieces were being taken. Frank's rub was a big hit. He had prepared the meat at 1030 that morning and we began carving at about 5.30 pm. Once all of the meat was carved it was time to sit down and enjoy some of the other offerings and a beer or two.

    There were about 30 people all together and at one point two large deer wandered passed without even giving us a sideways glance. The chatter was all about the parks and the conference with regular comments about how good the food was. Frank and Jean made sure that everyone had food and a drink and as the evening drew in a small fire was built to keep people warm. This was carefully supervised by those in attendance some of which were fire fighters.

    At this point Frank introduced me to his friend Johnny Walker. In fact double black Johnny Walker. Our conversation wandered in and out of Frank's background and history and I am fairly sure that at one point he shared the secret recipe for his rub. Alas, Mr Walker got the better of me and apart from one component the memory is lost. Frank also decided to entertain a few of us with his magic tricks. He shared one with me and my friend Harry Rhodes. Harry, not having had alcohol, cottoned to the dexterity of the trick much quicker than I did. However, I kept him amused as I tried to thread the two pieces of material together with what appeared to be five thumbs and eleven fingers.

    Then the time came to return to the hotel. It had been a very enjoyable and memorable evening and I could not believe it when I saw that the time was only 7.30pm. I thought that it was at least 10pm! Many of those in attendance enjoyed a late evening and were entertained when the local fire service attended to deal with a reported fire. Needless to say it was only the small fire at the cookout and there wasn’t any danger to anyone. At least the fire service went home happy as they took the remnants of the food and drink back to their station.

    My thanks go to Frank and Jean for entertaining us. A great evening.

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