For long stretches, I let the poetry-making, art-eating parts of myself lie fairly dormant. While this particular piece of my life is essential to who I am, I haven’t been disciplined enough or selfish enough or strong enough (depending on how you view these things) for its centrality to hold when waves of other responsibilities sweep around me. There are times I have neglected that identity so completely that I shy away from calling myself a poet at all. I nearly gave myself whiplash from nodding my assent so vigorously when I read Kim Brooks’ amazing recent essay about the challenges of being a mother and a maker. If you care about being a good parent and making art, the struggle is real, and it’s always tipping out of balance one way or another. Then again, it’s not a museum piece, is it? It’s a life!
But oh, joyously, one miraculous day in April I find myself eating pulled pork at Kathranne’s house in Iowa, meeting poets and curators and artists and musicians and talking shop with all of them, gabbing about collaborative art-making and Joseph Beuys and Eileen Myles and Negative Capability, laying hands on the incredible traveling boxes made for Correspondence Publishing, pondering the difficulties of memoir with a new friend who used to be a tiger trainer (now raising three boys with equal aplomb, no small feat), tapping out poetry ideas on my phone in the guest bed, too wired to sleep. And oh, yes! That part of me is still there, the one who has something to say about all that, and wants to hear what you have to say about all of it too. I get to feel like a poet again. And its sticking to my ribs this springtime, not fading.
Another gift of travel is realizing how flexible life is really, more than you remembered — how blinkered our routines become. Just seeing how someone else does it somewhere else, that opens up a huge pool of relief in which to swim back into yourself and let all the “shoulds” float away. How is the real question, how to structure things so there’s time and headspace for doing that which brings you joy. Whatever way you invent to make a life, with people-loving and art-making and social-justice longing and maybe without going bankrupt, you can make something beautiful, a life that’s free in surprising ways, and yours. I do believe that, and this spring, I believe it more than usual. The hard part (and it really does turn out to be a hard part sometimes) is that it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.
Even in recipes I like flexibility, so here’s the one from that evening in Iowa, which you can bend to your will and taste.
BarbeCue pulled pork
My favorite thing to start with here is a 3.5 pound boneless pork butt (yes, let’s get the tittering out of the way), but if that’s a bit pricey, I go with a 5 pound piece of pork shoulder, sometimes called picnic shoulder. With the shoulder piece you’re going to wind up with about 3 pounds of meat and have to trim off a great deal of fat (I was curious how much, so last time I weighed it — 11 ounces of fat and about 1 pound of bone). If you’re me, by the end of all that trimming you might wish you’d sprung for the pork butt. But I leave that up to you. If you’ve got a really big dutch oven you can double this, but as written it already feeds a crowd, and fits in a crock pot if that’s your tool of choice.
I find cooking things for long stretches tends to dull the flavors a bit, and they need a refreshing pick-me-up at the end. This layering gives the depth of flavor you want too — an echo of sorts. I use bottled barbecue sauce for this step (I like Stubb’s or the Trader Joe’s sweet and smoky Kansas City kind), but if you really want to make your own, this recipe looks about right to me.
3 to 4 pounds of pork butt or shoulder (see note above)
2 T brown sugar
1 T paprika
1 T smoked paprika
2 T chili powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne — optional for extra heat
1/2 to 1 cup barbecue sauce
Cut pork into 2 or 3-inch cubes and place in your dutch oven or crock pot. Mix all remaining ingredients (except barbecue sauce) in a small bowl and rub it all over the pork. Your hands are really the best tool for this. (If you’re going to be out all day, you can do this part the night before and stash it in your fridge til morning.) Set your crock pot to low or your oven to 200 and cook for 8 hours. Your pork should shred easily with two forks, and the melted fat will make a happy orange juice in your pot. The amount of this will vary greatly depending on how much fat was in your particular hunk of meat. You can drain most of this fat if you are concerned about it, or stir it all in to your shredded meat. I drain all but about 3 tablespoons — that seems to be enough to make things tasty but not heart-stopping. Stir in 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce and taste. Does it need more? You can probably just about eyeball it.
Makes about 24 sliders for a party or 8 main dish servings. Freezes gorgeously.