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Great Moments in the Smokehaus Lexicon: The Story of The Gorilla

Every business has their unique jargon. The restaurant industry in general is fraught with code – a hold-over from expediting short orders coupled with the Tower of Babel-scale mix of languages that populate many American eateries, there are general terms we all seem to know: “86,” “all-day,” “to fly,” “slammed,” etc., but each place usually creates its own set of slang over time and the Smokehaus isn’t an exception. Today we shall reveal the story of one of our most mystifying sandwich titles: The Gorilla.

We didn’t always smoke meat. We started off sticking to fish – Eric had one smallish smoker off-site in a commercial kitchen and a license that allowed him to smoke and sell it but forbade him to distribute anything that had hooves, fur, or mammary glands (like fish versus swine, the FDA and USDA are also two different animals, and one has deeper pockets and some pretty outstanding long-term relationships with big ag that pretty much eliminates small-time processors like us from selling to anyone, anywhere except our own storefront, but that’s a story for another time). Eventually, we moved our operation to Dewitt Seitz, directly under our retail space. This enabled us to start smoking sausage, pastrami, ham, and pork loin. Eric would tinker around with backyard-smoker recipe favorites, adapting them to the more formal demands of our commercial Vortron units, and we the few employees at the time would reap the rewards. What a time to be alive and carnivorous!

Eventually, like so many crossroads in life, it came down to perfecting the simplest recipe: the ham.

The first perfect batch was glorious – rosy, glistening mounds of promise, made even more pristine by the charred unholy walls of the smoker. Like Aphrodite in the lap of Hephaestus, the natural beauty of the ham was elevated to irresistible by its company, and we sawed off pieces straight from the rack, surrounding the smoker and taking turns with the knife. There is nothing like meat from the smoker. Smoky, yes, and tender and salty and sweet – but there is a delicacy when it is newly made that wears off after it has been cooled and stored. Even more heavy-handed items like pastrami or andouille are touched with this grace note when the smoke clears and we open the big stainless door. Ham is perhaps most demonstrative of this phenomenon, and this first batch was a revelation to us all.

Eric’s best childhood friend Dan was in town, and was among the few to enjoy this singular experience. The two had grown up together in Iowa, Dan was currently living in New York City, and they still keep in touch. As the silence that fell over our greasy mouths began to dissipate with the mumblings and exclamations of pleasure, Dan began to tell us a tale.

“I had the craziest dream last night. I don’t know if it’s because I was sleeping in Eric’s basement where it’s extra dark, extra quiet and extra cold? Anyway, I dreamt like all night last night, but all I remember is this one part. I was in my parents’ house back in Iowa, it was at night, I was alone. There was a sliding glass door off the living room, and the deck was lit up. There was this enormous gorilla pounding on the door to get in, and it was terrifying. He pounded and pounded, and would pace back and forth in between poundings. I didn’t know what to do – the thing must have weighed a ton and there was just this thin layer of glass between us, but I couldn’t run away. It just kept taunting me, rattling the glass. It was one of those full-grown silverback types you see on PBS, with smart, shiny eyes and big yellow teeth.  But the thing is, the gorilla was wearing a jean jacket.”

Urban worldliness mixed with childhood fantasy? Wilderness anxiety? Brain flush? We didn’t know what Dan’s psyche was up to, but we did know that we thought it was hilarious. The image coupled with the meat high was enough to send us into cry-laughter for several minutes. It was a wonderful feeling. Eventually, when we calmed down, we started to talk sandwiches. We knew this basic but beautiful meat deserved the same on the menu, and settled for a simple ham, Swiss, lettuce, mustard, and mayo sandwich on rye. Name-wise, we half-heartedly tossed a few around. I particularly wanted it to be called the Bukowski, but we all knew that it really could only be The Gorilla.

Later, when we discovered that our most popular two sandwiches (The Cajun Finn and Cold Turkey) were significantly boosted by the addition of cilantro and Sriracha, we found a place to hang the Jean Jacket – a secret menu addition that delights many customers to this day, though few know the origin. In fact, you can add a Jean Jacket to nearly anything on the menu, though I still think the Gorilla is best au natural. So, the next time you order a Gorilla, or add a jean jacket, remember that it comes from a very honest ether – and you are having a taste of Smokehaus history.

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