We Don’t Need No Flowers and Spice to Tell Us the Season

commentary editorial opinion

Nick Reiher

OK, enough about how newspapers and other legitimate media are dying. Let’s get back to food:
As I have mentioned, Kolorama, a party for Herald News peeps the second week in October, was the official beginning of fall for our family. Copy editor Betty Wirth and her late husband, Bob (“Red”) hosted us for many years at their beautiful home on the banks of the Kankakee River in Ritchie.
So many good times and great memories there, just chillin’ for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. Bob and Betty would make a ham, and the rest of us would bring homemade goodies to accompany.
And, of course, we need to make the trek along the river through some gnarly terrain to see the beaver dam. Tradition. We were lucky that most of the time, there was nice fall weather. I don’t believe we needed pumpkin spice back in those days. By cracky!
A few months earlier, when the temperature was – as my Dad used to say, “Hotter than the hinges of Hades. – there was Proud American Days in New Lenox, The Home of said Proud Americans.
And with Proud American Days was another tradition that was something, for many reasons, you just couldn’t forget. The highlight of the summer.
I am, of course, talking about Beef-O-Rama.
Twenty or so of the finest chefs and wannabes who were willing to get up at 5 a.m. to begin grilling a 22-pound roast with their secret spices and sometimes dicey hygiene competed for a coveted trophy that would have made Ralphie’s Dad in “A Christmas Story” envious of this “Major Award.”
If that weren’t enough, there also would be prizes for the best theme and best decorated table exemplifying the chef’s business. And before the judging, there would be the “Parade of Beef,” when the rumpled roasts would be dragged on decorated wagons around a portion of the grounds.
So memorable was this event that Tony Ray – the late, great WJOL radio host – would remind me of our days as judges every time he saw me in later years.
The first thing. Even though he and I one evening sat next to each other in a cafeteria at the old Joliet Correctional Center, watching James Brown perform with a full band and four lady backup singers.
I know, right?
And then, there is spring, when, at least on Facebook, people count down the days until the vernal equinox with expectations the weather will turn sunny and warmer, flowers will begin to bloom and forest creatures will clean their homes.
For our family, spring sprung with the annual Pilcher Park Pancake and Maple Syrup fest. Actually, my brother Gordon and his wife Anne found this even before we did, even though they live in Chicago, and we about 15 minutes away.
The Nature Center was a lot smaller back in the ‘80s, so we would try to time our arrival before area churches let out on Sunday mornings. Still, we would often be waiting in line outside, then inside, wrapping around the displays of turtles, one-winged birds and other exotics.
All for a short stack of pancakes, a couple breakfast links, orange juice and coffee. Oh, and the maple syrup, at one time made on site from trees tapped in the park. So good.
But the tree tapped sap used to make syrup for the breakfast went the way of the Old Flowing Well, and, I hear, for the same reason. After we gobbled our breakfast, we could still travel over to the old shack where volunteers would use the sap to demonstrate how to make syrup.
The smell of the burning wood used for the fire and the smoldering sap was – and is – incredible.
Gordy, Anne, Tammy and I continued the tradition, missing very few years, and feeling pretty bad when we had to. When our kids were born, they came, too, and enjoyed the breakfast, the sap show and a brief nature hike.
Andy would have been there this year if he didn’t have to work. Jillian came from Iowa City the day before for pancakes … and to see her Aunt and Uncle.
It was great. It’s always great. And it will continue to be great when we usher in spring the same way next year.

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