OL’FASHIONED BONFIRE EVE
6th November 2015
Silence hung heavy in the cold November air. A dense layer of acrid smoke snaked its way through the damp, bending blades of grass and into the panting lungs of the trembling bodies desperately hugging the earth for protection. Worryingly, the firing had stopped prematurely, and the barrages of flames, pops, bangs and whizzes had been replaced by the now deathly, disconcerting black silence.
Uncle Mel (Uncle in the wonderful Northern, un-familial sense) holding on to his dazzling mullet, breaks the calm in his shrill Hull drawl… “Take Cover!” whilst using one of his younger children as a human shield. Who says courage is dead.
BOOM… like a harbinger of ensuing chaos, a tracer rocket leapt into the night sky cutting off the voices. I watched in horror praying that this device would not, like its predecessor, be turned on us.
The second keg had ignited and, predictably like the first, tipped onto its side – spewing forth its cheery, yet destructive ordinance once again into the faces of the damp, weary and visibly shaken legion of bonfire night revelers. A big man with a large black beard and rough workers jacket grabbed a boy who was attempting to run, throwing him into the relatively safer confines of a sprawling conifer tree, where some iron garden furniture had been hastily erected as a barricade for what minimal protection it could offer.
I knew the drill now. Like the old 1950’s public safety videos recommended in case of nuclear war, duck and cover…
From a great distance (the box recommends 25 meters) the 200 shot barrage would have been impressive and less deadly, but from a mere 5 meters pointed directly at you, the effect was more Apocalypse Now than Guy Fawkes. Through the smoke Uncle Ol (actual uncle) tentatively asked if everyone was ok. We’d survived another year!
For as long as I can remember this annual tradition of seeing which house could get the biggest and best ordinance into the sky in the shortest time possible, regardless of the staggering cost involved, was something we waited eagerly for all year.
My Dad and My Uncle Ken (another “uncle”) would take the afternoon off work to trawl around Hull and like two small time arms dealers. They would locate the most ferocious looking barrages, rockets and incendiary devices, for their and, to a lesser extent our, pleasure. The more illegal the better.
Cost, to the women folks utter fury, was never an issue.
Looking back, I am pretty sure that if they could have bought a Scud Missile for the night and painted it in neons, they would probably have re-mortgaged the houses and made East Yorkshires first “surface to air missile” launch.
For weeks leading up to the big night, their garages became arsenals, with sea flares, 200-300 shot kegs, mortar style rockets and barrages packed into every conceivable space. My mum, like a powerless UN weapons inspector trying to sniff out some crack pot dictators arms cache, would attempt to intervene, but always her protestations and concerns would be met with a blanket of sabre rattling and verbatim from my increasingly eccentric and excitable pop. In an act of desperation and, needing to assert some kind of authority, she would confiscate my Zippo.
Both of them had spent quite a bit of time out in the US, and looking back I think this effected there approach to secondary seasonal holidays. While other families would make do with the regulation, if not a little somber and safe, boxes of British Standard fireworks and Ye Olde Oake tinned franks – they had to have the biggest, the best and potentially the most lethal night in the county.
The result of this was that on more than one occasion, it all went a little bit Enola Gay…
Invariably, safety issues would be overlooked. Fireworks intended for public demonstrations (and thus requiring considerable viewing distance) were deployed and home-made launch devices often malfunctioned (fond memories of the homemade mortar…)
I still think there would be just cause to erect some sort of memorial to the burnt skin, ruined jackets and traumatised guests that every year retreated home in a mass evacuation of our joint gardens.
The explosives may have been the main event, but like all great acts, it needed a warm up. Going back to my Dad, the old sea dog had got around the states a fair bit during his time in the Merchant Navy, and inevitably eaten his way across most of it. From the huge square Pizza of New York, to …. his stories of nautical gluttony were amongst my favourites. Forget pirates, mermaids, ship wrecks and seaweed monsters – I wanted to know what the fella ate!
Luckily for me, unlike most sailors who’s tales of weapon grade Balonium are laced with lies and fantasy, he could back up his stories with his brilliant ability to recreate these dishes and, for a long period of time, my favourite in his repertoire was Baton Rouge Bar Chilli.
This was a bit of a golden age for the Chilli, an era where it remained untainted by clueless TV chefs waxing lyrical about adding grated dark chocolate and instant coffee. Yes! The aztecs MAY have done that according to your researchers, however they also practiced human sacrifice. Indeed, we were happily 20 years away from the legions of hipsters who gleefully preached to us the joys of dirty food, fully unaware that in the North, circa 1996, dirty food had another name, simply, food.
No, back then in the East Riding, if any dish didn’t come with fried eggs, melted cheese and added fat, it was viewed with a voodoo like suspicion.
This was proper down and dirty, blue collar eating, far removed from the television studios, street food markets and converted citroen vans of East London. This was working mans food, carefully honed on the quaysides and waterfronts of the Mississippi and lovingly replicated on the Humber’s brown shores.
His chilli is simple, follows some basic rules and borrows from the Mexican/Texan and Creole cooking traditions, the result is something that I have never had replicated. Its got to the point now that I categorically avoid chilli all year, just so I can have this one once a year. What makes his so unique is the inclusion of saltine crackers (failing that ritz biscuits/jacobs creams crackers), jalapeños and jack cheese
For the true, “experiential” effect – a nod to you hipsters 😉 – eat after precariously balancing a SAM-site sized firework keg, ominously on a garden table, surrounded by your nearest and dearest.
As they say in Baton Rouge “Lay say lay bohn tohn roo lay”…let the good times roll!
Feeds a fair few.
500g Beef Mince
500g Pork Mince
100g bacon fat
1 Red pepper
1 Green pepper
2 Sticks of celery
2 Brown onions
1 litre of beef or chicken stock
4-5 tins of good quality whole tomatoes
Double concentrated tomato paste
2 tins of Borlotti Beans (I Personally find kidney beans to lame, the Borlotti is like a little mini steak)
1 bottle Budweiser
Salt and black pepper to taste
Salty brand of crackers (Saltine, Tuc, Ritz, or if you are a health vulture, Jacobs.)
Grated Cheap red cheese/Jack Cheese/Cheddar
Dried chipotle chillli
4 Tsp Chili flakes
2 Tsp Cayenne
3 Tsp Garlic powder
2 Tsp Cumin
1 Tsp celery salt
1. Don’t be scared about the amount of ingredients, this is childs play amigo.
Render the fat out of the bacon in a heavy bottomed dutch oven or Le creuset dish.
Finely dice the southern holy trinity of veg what is the celery, onion and peppers (I do the sign of the cross at this point, but you can make a nod to your god) and add to the bacon fat.
Turn the heat down and allow these all to sweat without taking any colour for about 15-20 minutes (now drink half that Bud)
While this is happening, season the mince with salt, pepper and some of the dried chilli flakes and dry fry in a large frying pan.
Break the meat up nice and fine with a wooden spoon and cook until the meats browned before adding to a colander over the sing and draining the fat and meat scum off.
Once the veggies are soft and mixed with all that bacon – Add the spice mix and cook out for another 10 minutes.
Add the mince, lime juice, drained borlotti beans and half that bud I kindly asked you to drink.
Simmer a little until all the booze has got the ether nice and merry.
While thats cooking away, get all your tomatoes into a bowl and crush them by hand, salt the tomatoes and add to the meat before adding a shot of diluted concentrate tomato.
Taste and season if needed.
Let the chilli reduce and pop in that Chipotle pepper for me.
Let the water reduce off so you are left with quite a thick mixture, then top up with the stock and repeat.
This chilli is not the liquidy kind, more like the stuff that sticks to your gut.
After about 2 hours you should be ready.
Finish by mixing in a broken up cracker, a handful of cheese on top and then more broken crackers.