My good friend Jay Bonfatti died last week of a heart attack. He was 52. Jay taught me a few things about barbecue, including Mexican barbecue in banana leaves, but never did give me the recipe for his favorite maple-mustard sauce.
I’ve been cooking pork shoulder for his party-that-isn’t-a-wake later today, thinking about Jay, and the love he showed my family. It’s been like sitting shiva, but with 90 pounds of pork butt.
In the picture above, Jay is standing in a sugar shack in southern Erie County, a lovely place whose owner would rather not be named for all the invitations people might try to cadge. (That’s mist from evaporating sap, not smoke.)
Jay got us in there, though. He thought the kids would get a kick out of seeing how maple syrup is made over a wood-fired boiler, the old-fashioned way. I agreed immediately, thinking that I had never actually seen it either.
Jay knew when they were bored we would hike to the top of the nearby hill. He insisted that we pose for a picture, and shot until he got a good one. Later, when they abandoned adults for a nearby creekbed, Jay had suggestions for things they could do with sticks.
That day, and his time, was a gift from Jay. There were many others, and if I can remember one thing he proved, it wasn’t a barbecue tip. It was that people are worth investing your time in, working to create a life worth living. That, and he still had time to make barbecue.
There’s going to be some of Jay’s barbecue at his party tomorrow, actually. His family thought it would be funny if friends unearthed a pork butt and turkey breast from the freezer and brought it. Jay would have gotten a kick out of cooking for his own wake. (There will be maple-mustard sauce too, supposedly. Jay gave the recipe to a few people, it turns out, although I could have thought of a few squidzillion happier ways to get it.)
So there’s to be one more chance for barbecue smack talking, a skill that Jay did not take to naturally – he was far too genial by nature. But when occasion arose, and he saw the need, he could lay down the lumber like the Sultan of Smack.
If Jay was standing right here right now, here’s what I’d tell him: “You think people might favor the Bonfatti flavor, you might have the edge because people like you? You goin’ down, you … Drew Bledsoe fan.”
God bless you, Jay.