I went to high school with a rather odd fellow named Nick. ‘Rather odd,’ because, like me, he was and still is the kind of guy who can quote romantic poetry in his sleep. ‘Rather odd,’ because, also like me, he made the unfortunate decision at some point during his teenage years that he wanted to pursue a life in writing, and found self-expression to be somehow more noble than empty dreams of trying to make
We have a lot in common, me and Nick. And yes, I mean me and Nick. In High School, though, we didn’t necessarily recognize our similarities. Mostly, I oscillated between being rude and condescending towards Nick. In some ways we were always competing in our academic pursuits, and in others, we were just two different if not soul-searching young men navigating those ‘awkward’ years.’ Amidst these feelings, as well as the environment of an all guys Catholic school, it was only natural for Nick and I to be play the roles of the begrudging classmates.
Back then, I would have picked a number of my classmates who I could have seen myself being a future coworker to. Nick, to be honest, was about as far down on the list as one could get, right above the guy who took six years to get through a junior college and ended up becoming the next Doug Heffernon for UPS. Amazingly, five years after graduating, Nick and I work together for a publishing company. Even more amazingly, Nick feeds me mouth-watering, sumptuous pulled pork at work.
Our teachers and alumni from our high school always told us we’d be brothers for life with our classmates. There have been times over the last few years where I wanted to believe that sentiment, and other times where I downright disowned the idea. More and more, I think I settled on it being just a nice thing people said for graduation dinners and reunion-type gatherings. But in the real world – graduated, long moved on, chasing different goals – the idea of a brotherhood was distant and prosaic.
Then something weird happened. Out of the blue last summer, after moving back to Maryland and finding myself friendless, Nick invited me to one of his barbeques. I knew the guy had some eclectic hobbies, but I never knew my sometimes introverted high school acquaintance had molded himself into quite a pitmaster. Emphasis, may I add, on the master. I left his barbecue with a newfound appreciation for him earlier this summer, and struck that someone I sometimes picked on would extent such friendliness and brotherhood my way.
Gradually summer became fall, and I managed to not screw up enough in my part-time job to get promoted to an Assistant Editor. With part-time position about to hit the want adds, my company asked if I knew any one who’d be interested in filling it. I knew just the guy. Knowing Nick had been, like myself, struggling to break into the transitioning if not contracting world of writing and publishing, I gave him the heads up. A few weeks later he signed on. And a few weeks after that — last week, actually — Nick treated our entire office to one of his signature dishes.
Nick’s pulled pork is everything you could want. Authentic and honestly smoked, it exhibits those prominent pink rings that hang their flavor compounds within the roof of your mouth, sending wave after wave of their tempting aroma into every nook and corner of our office building. With plenty of crunchy, fatty-sweet Mr. Brown pieces and tender and vinegar infused Mrs. White’s, the slow smoked butt was adorned in nothing but a simple and thin sauce. Served up on a Martin’s Potato Bun at 7:30 in the morning, it made a wonderful breakfast. Unplanned, and coming after a sleeve of Oreos I had already downed that morning, it also made a less than optimal breakfast.
But that”s the point, isn’t it? Life is full of gifts, and for as much as I’ve embraced food as a way to show my appreciation for others while expressing my creativity, I seldom allow friends and family to give back in kind. Too often, I just don’t allow it to be part of my routine. I fail to embrace the variety of it, the unexpectedness of the moment. In doing so, I’m making a statement about my values, and that, even though I say I value friends and food, charity and brotherhood, I’m really just embracing selfishness.
The irony, of course, is that selfishness is no fun. And it doesn’t taste nearly as good as Nick’s pulled pork, and the reminder that the best tasting gifts are often the ones that come when we least expect them, and from those we least expect them from.