In all the chaos I forgot to log an incredible and enjoyable work event that transpired in Colorado this week. We’ve been planning a retreat for a few months – a time when we bring everyone together from around the country, talk through our internal plans, do some skill building and get focused on the remainder of the year. No bones about it – I wanted the retreat to be in Colorado because I didn’t want to travel and I was going to do whatever I could to make it happen. And for awhile, it looked like things just weren’t going to pan out. We tried Keystone – too expensive. (Actually it’s worth noting that it wasn’t any more expensive than other options, but people in DC were crying about having to fly from the east coast to Colorado then take a two hour drive up into the mountains. Who thinks like that?? If I lived in DC that would sound like a healthy prescription to me, but what do I know?)
But then a few of us started thinking outside of the box. The plan was to create a cost-effective option in Denver that nobody could argue with. So Rich is my work peer…actually I am his boss but I have such a hard time thinking of him as anything other than a work peer. Anyway – he lives in Eldorado Canyon, on a dirt road, like 100 yards from the entrance to the national park. His house is surrounded by mountains and perched on a river where the sounds of rolling water can drown out just about any kind of craziness. I love being there. It helps that I like Rich, too. We thought, what if instead of doing our typical 30 person dinner in a fancy restaurant, we got everyone up to Eldorado Canyon and did a barbecue? Rich & I both love to grill…and we’re both good at it. Why not? It would easily be hundreds, if not thousands of dollars cheaper than our usual plan. That makes sense, right?
We did a little bit of busy work to price out hotels and flights for people flying in from 15 states, but we knocked that out fairly quickly and bam! Denver was our retreat destination. Once we nailed down the location – it was time to start coloring in the retreat with activities. Rich & I took over. Starting with our initial idea of having a barbecue, we began to tailor the week around it and before too long…we had an actual Colorado themed week. Rather than set up some fancy restaurants and posh cocktail hours, we decided to do a real Colorado experience. We booked a quirky cool hotel downtown, got everyone tickets to a Rockies game and vowed to only serve Colorado inspired food and drink – and that meant local microbrews and meat cooked over an open flame.
Back to the barbecue. The menu went through several iterations, including roasting a whole suckling pig at one point. In the end, we decided on some chicken, a couple stuffed pork loins and a whole lotta ribs. And of course, when ribs made the menu, I started talking trash…suggesting a competition. A bonifide ‘Rib-Off’. I don’t think anyone cared, but it sure sounded good. However, in the end we just opted for an easy division of labor. I’d do the ribs, Rich would do the stuffed pork loins and chicken. Easy enough. He & I are both cooks. And while there was never any dissension over technique or process, it was evident that our approaches to doing meat vary some. And hey, that’s fine. Men and grilling are genetically linked, but not every strand of barbecue DNA looks the same either.
I want to share a very sobering and humbling experience that I had while making my ribs. With all the other food, I decided doing six big racks would be enough. And because no one was actually competing with me, I decided I could do a little variety…maybe experiment with different rubs, mix it up with different sauces, etc. I was going to have to smoke them in a gas grill, which isn’t my first preference, but maybe I’d also experiment a bit with wood chips too. There’s a store in Denver, right downtown, called the Savory Spice Shop. It’s about the best place ever. Their walls are lined with big jars of raw spices. You can taste them, you can mix them and grind them up and make your own rubs. They have one wall of varietal New Mexico chiles and another that showcases different rubs from around the country. I usually make my own rub for my ribs. Like this place, I grind and mix my own things and keep them in glass jars above the sink. I thought long and hard about what to use for my retreat ribs, finally selecting a pre-mixed Kansas City rub, then grinding my own with some hickory smoked salt and other secret ingredients. I figured I’d do two racks of each of those and then use my own home brew for the final two racks.
However, the night before we were cooking, I was at my mom’s house prepping my ribs…peeling off the silverskin, dusting them just right and then wrapping them tightly to sit and eventually birth deliciousness. That’s when my mom walked in to the kitchen and made a nonchalant comment en route to the refrigerator.
Oh, have you tried my new rib rub yet?
Wait, what? Now my mom can cook – no two ways about it. But what was she talking about? When did she start cooking ribs? Forget that. Was she talking about making her own rub? Certainly she couldn’t be, right? She probably meant that in anticipation of my arrival, she’d seen some rub in the store that looked good and picked it up for me to try one night…when I was cooking. Had to be.
Actually, no. While I was trying to figure out what she must have meant, my mom had descended into her pantry and returned with a glass jar – JUST LIKE THE GLASS JARS I USE – and set it down next to my spices.
What is that? I asked.
It’s my new rub.
Who made it?
What’s in it?
I can’t tell you.
Ok, long story short – I decided to use my mom’s mystery rub on the last two racks of ribs – which exactly meant that I wouldn’t be using my usual rub from home. I was comfortable with that. So I finished my ribs, making sure to clearly indicate which spices had been used on which racks. I’m not going to lie, they looked good – all of them. After a few pats on my own back, I put everything away and called it a day. More to come on the ribs.
The next day we did a little more shopping and then settled in to cook. We were expecting our crew of 30+ people somewhere around 7pm so we could take our time and do things right. In fact, at one point I looked at Rich & Georgie and said “You know, we are the leaders of this organization. I would feel so guilty if we brought all these leaders out of their states and into the mountains and then poisoned them with bad beer because we didn’t have the foresight to tap and test this keg of Odell’s 90 Shilling – which is actually my favorite beer.” They got the point quickly and we spent the afternoon in the mountains, by the river, drinking Colorado beer and cooking. How about that for the best day ever?
The event was a hit. I don’t have any interest in belaboring the actual work part of the retreat. Boring. I will say that by the time everyone arrived on the political bus that we chartered for them, we’d had two full days of sun, beer and food…all up in the mountains. Perfect. Oh – the bus, yes. There is a non-profit in Boulder that has a bus that picks up drunk kids from the bar and takes them home for a couple of bucks. They use the money to feed starving artists (go figure – it’s Boulder). Rich had called them and worked out a deal where they would cruise down to Denver and pick up our people, bring them to us and then return them to the hotel at 11 or 12…all for jaw dropping cost of like $200 or something. Perfect.
Back to the ribs and then I’ll wrap this entry up. They were all good – all six of them. Now I mentioned that I kept track of which rub I used and I continued to do that while I cooked them. Then, when it was time to serve people, I laid them out with note cards indicating what was what. And remember – though it was my idea to do a ‘Rib Off’ – that’s not what happened. I made all the ribs. In the event that someone wanted to overlay a competition – I should win, seeing as I was the only one that cooked ribs, right? Duh. But that’s not what I happened either. I didn’t win. Rich didn’t when for his stellar currant and pine nut stuffed pork loins either. Who did? My mom. The ribs rubbed with her secret spices were the crowd favorite. Can you believe it?
Now I did tell her that she won. I also asked her for the ingredients to her rub, which she promised but has yet to deliver. So I stole the jar. I’ll be spending some time trying to deconstruct what she uses. But it won’t be easy.