Growing up as I did in the fat obsessed 80s and 90s, steak was verboten in our house.
“We don’t eat red meat” was the mantra oft recited.
There was a strange logical disconnect in all of this because for a quick dinner, my mom would often chuck some lamb chops in the toaster oven. Adorned with nothing, they came out wonderfully, though a little over cooked, but the fat was nice and crisp at the edges and they made a good supper, drenched in A1. We also ate ever so many hamburgers, brought pre-packed at the A&P or the Food Emporium. I’m not sure why they didn’t count as red meat, but still, there was never steak. My mom would sniff “I don’t eat red meat.” And then, she’d suck the marrow out of your lamb chop bone. So…
Mostly we ate chicken in a variety of roasted and baked forms, spaghetti (or other fun shaped “noodles”) with Ragu kicked up with added veggies and olives, salmon loaf in the early years, salmon fillets as the decade grew older and perhaps my parents became a little wealthier, along with interesting forays into things like swordfish and Cornish game hens, which were basically just very small chickens. My mom has a way with chicken, and I looked forward to her fake fried version, which is easy as sin:
My Mom’s Baked “Fried” Chicken:
1 package cut up chicken, either in uniform parts you like, (I like thighs, and so does my husband, who will tell you he prefers breasts,) or the whole thing, cut up, skin-on bone-in preferable.
1-canister Progresso Italian breadcrumbs
1) Preheat the oven to 400
2) Rinse the chicken and pat dry. (This is key! It will give you a crispy crust!)
3) Season chicken with salt and pepper
4) Spread the bread crumbs in a plate
5) Press the chicken pieces into the breadcrumbs on both sides, shaking off excess.
6) Arrange chicken in a baking dish
7) Bake for about 40 minutes, or until done.
Serve with potatoes, roasted veggies or salad.
Then I went to college in the Middle West of our great cattle-producing nation, wherein I learned that everyone eats steak. Even people from New York. It’s called New York Strip for a reason! No, people don’t sniff at it. They love it. In fact, it’s a luxurious delicacy! Did you know that? I didn’t!
But I was clueless in college. (Isn’t it funny that at the exact moment we think we know everything about everything, we are the most absolutely clueless?)
So, I dabbed at it, eating bites of other people’s strips and filets. And then, late in my chaotic sophomore year, towards the tail end of the spring semester, the slow smiling Mid-Western boy that I loved finally invited me to dinner with his parents.
This was a coup and a half, because while I had eagerly introduced him to every person that I ever spoke to, met or came to visit me, from my best guy friend from high school to my little sister, he… did not. In fact, earlier in the year he had taken another girl he was dating to meet his parents, rather than me. A girl that was also sort of his girlfriend, and also sort of not (well, so he insisted to my face, though rumor had it otherwise, that she was just his girlfriend, and I was simply not), and also in an overlapping group of my friends, who was sort of my friend and sort of not, because how? A girl… from Minnesota! And then it turned out that they, the girl and the parents, had all met before… at his house! Over the summer! While I was at home, working! (Three days a week at the most magical place in New York City, my cousin’s silk flower factory, and two days and the other most magical place in New York City, the beauty department of McCall’s Magazine! But still, it was work. I was not having fun in Fond du Lac!)
I should have revolted, right? I mean, there were plenty of boys, including one much closer to me, who vied for my attention and whom I liked too. And yet… and yet… and yet… I clung to him like barnacle to a ship bottom, rocking along with the tide. Because I just really liked him, and that slow smile, and his secret nerdiness. As a dedicated reader and romantic that seemed quite simply to be enough. We would meet at the top of the Empire State Building some day! Or at least, on the first floor of Memorial Library every day. And out at night, and wherever else we could, without him having to verbalize that he was committing to meet me anywhere…
When I would get sad about this state affairs that first semester, and appeal to her as we sat smoking on her bed in our tank tops, Katie would just sigh, roll her eyes, ash in her diet coke and change the subject. I was boring, so boring, with it. There were so many other things to do and see and people to like. Why was I wasting my time?
Then we, she and I, would get dressed to go out, dolled up like molls, or as close as we could get, because this was the late 90’s and Swing was a Thing. While our colleagues wore black pants and stacked heeled boots, or jeans and Timberlands, we wore pencil skirts and twin sets and open toed thick-heeled pumps. It was ten degrees outside. In our fake fur coats, we held each other so as not to fall on the ice. Our lips were brownish red, or reddish brown, and we were insouciant, sweet martini shaped drinks (but not actual martinis) in hand, served to us for free by our friends who were also bartenders. Oddly, we also often wore bell bottoms, the bigger the better.
A “French” Martini
2 parts lemon flavored vodka
1 part Chambord
Shake over ice, and serve in a chilled martini glass, with a cherry or an orange twist. Grimace at the sweetness. Grimace more at the headache you have from drinking ten of these.
One of the things to come out of this “Swing” craze in Madison, were a spate of martini lounges and bars, at the pinnacle of which was an upscale steak house that I want to say was called… the Thunder Room? The Tornado Room?! Is that possible? Or likely? The web will tell me!
And there it is… The Tornado Room. And that is where that pleasant spring evening I was summoned to meet the parents. The other girl was away on her semester abroad, and in the mean time he had decided I was entertaining enough to kill the days and the nights with, and was less reluctant to acknowledge my presence in public, and sometimes he was even affectionate.
That evening I was exceedingly hung over. And also terribly nervous, which in turn exacerbated the hang over. And who knows when or what I had last eaten. And here I was, confronted with two healthy Midwestern parents, pink cheeked and smiling at me, eager to learn who I was, what I was studying. Time to turn on the charm.
I arrived alone to find them there, waiting. Because, of course, the boy and I, for some reason, were “fighting.” And possibly showing up at a location together was too much of a commitment for either of us.
I can’t remember the terms of the “fight” or the reason we had engaged in it. I don’t even know if it could truly have been called a fight, or that it was just that I had been annoying to him or him to me in some way at some point in the previous 24 hours, and passive aggressively neither of us had been willing to cancel. It was a frustrating, non-communicative, rather dramatic sort of love. A hate-y sort of love, if you will.
The tension between us was constant. In private, we talked for hours about books (Middlemarch was a passion of both of ours, stranger for him than for me, looking back) and Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, and just life. We were truly nerds and got each other, and it was pretty wonderful and romantic… sometimes we spent all night kissing on a dock in Lake Mendota, the spring night turning into a summer day around us.
Publicly, mostly we ignored or “dissed” or “cock blocked” or in some other way insulted each other. If it had been up to me, we’d have been birds in a tree, or spiders on that dock, but it wasn’t up to me. (And then again, spiders tend to murder each other after procreating. Perhaps we were spiders.) He led, and I followed, like so much of what I did non-academically in college, and Katie shook her head at me from the sidelines, and cheered with relief when I would periodically make a foray out or in with someone else.
He showed up soon after I did. I think he waved hello at me, after kissing his mother. At that restaurant, where I went sweating in my twin set, reeking of booze and body lotion and Issey Miyake and Marlboro Lights, the large menu was placed in front of me. The burning smell of steak surrounded me. The smiling parental faces engaged with me. My stomach was in traction. And there wasn’t a thing on this menu that wasn’t meat or heavy and rich but one. I love heavy and rich, but I knew myself at that moment, thank god. And so I ordered the “but one.”
It was the smallest, saddest salad in the history of the world. I was nearly shivering with nerves and fear. And so was it. A frosted tomato, a limp pair of cucumber slices, wilted strands of iceberg. Was the salad me? Possibly, because as if to make up for the sad veggies, there was an overabundance of Bac-O’s. Which we all know are fake ham.
The boy shook his head with disgust. The mother looked at me concerned. This was “lame, lame, lame” to quote Joan Rivers.
“With the entrees please…” I made sure to say. And no mistake.
Anxiety is an excellent appetite suppressant. I watched them eat their appetizers. I think I may have had a single shrimp from someone elses cocktail, to be polite. I possibly had a French Martini, to take the edge away. The conversation went not so badly: the father was smart and engaging. The mother smart and kind. My charm beamed steadily, lucky me. Like my parents, she was a librarian and he was a lawyer. The son, sweet underneath, warmed up a fraction, and for a while, it went ok. We talked about what Israel is like, and England, and Shakespeare, and Latin, which I was majoring in. But then sports were introduced into the conversation, and the air of silent detachment began again.
The food arrived. Rib-eyes for the men. A petit filet for the mom. A small, so small, sad salad for me. The boy rolled his eyes as the waiter set it down. The mother leaned over to me.
“He’s pulling your pig tails.” She whispered to me, all flat “a”s and smiling eyes.
I must have looked very puzzled… my hair was down and blown straight, bobbed to the jaw.
“He likes you so much. He is pulling your pigtails, like a little kid.” She smiled warmly at me.
For a moment, the cloud of confusion disappeared, and a bit of clear sky truth peaked through. It was the kindest thing she could have said. It might even have been true. Huh. Maybe she was right. Maybe this was really IT! Didn’t Gilbert Blythe pull Anne’s pig tails? And look what happened to them!
I held onto that for the rest of the summer, proudly repeating it to my bored friends, as he and I fought and flared at each other, and engaged in some excellent insanely dramatic moments that Katie would have applauded, had she stayed in town. Once, in a state of fury, I ran out of a bar, into the pouring summer rain, and he followed me, feet pounding on the pavement, and picked me up as I fell, quite literally, on my face. Another time, angry at some disloyalty, I snuck into his house in the middle of the night, (not hard, as every door in Madison was unlocked in the summer) and stole all of his magazines. I am not entirely sure why I did this. But I don’t regret it! All those GQ’s and Men’s Healths…
By the fall, we fizzled. My pigtails were not being pulled. And then I went to London, where I fell in love with someone very different, and I never ate red meat because of Mad Cow. Steak would wait some years… and my hair was cut in a rather severe bob, inspired by Monica on Friends, and was too short for pigtails anyway…
…Until 2003, when I met someone who really was pulling my pigtails…
Of course I had eaten steak between 1998 and 2003 (see Steak Tartare!) but never in the name of romance. And Rob, this tall, handsome, funny, strange, smiling man, had come back to New York from California, a mere month after we met, just to see ME! To take me out to dinner for my birthday, in fact, on a real date. He didn’t tell me where we were going, as I trotted to keep up with him, as he strode from my place on the Lower East Side towards SoHo. He stopped for a moment and turned to me. We kissed on the street to get it over with, so we could digest our food better. His heavy coat flapped like a cape in the brisk wind, and he put his arm around me, and I was warm. We passed Balthazar and Canteen. We passed many other likely joints, until shivering, we finally stopped at the perfect one.
It was Raoul’s, that old classic haunt on Prince Street, its drooping palm tree wedged against the window, its fluorescent sign lit up and beckoning. I had drunk there before, but never eaten. A glamorous woman I had worked there celebrated her anniversary with her husband there every year, and I was fully impressed with Rob’s choice and so happy! It was chic and classic and New York City. We sat in the long banquette up front, and in the dark cold November night, we ordered Steak Au Poivre and, no, I didn’t have a French Martini, though I may have started with a dirty one. Rob ordered a bottle of Chateau Margaux, and I got silly with it and with happiness and the closeness of the warm restaurant after the walk outside. We had profiteroles, and we talked and we laughed, and he was proud of me.
And now once in a while, but not too often, I will buy the best NY Strip I can find. I will salt it lightly but not liberally, and open all the windows, and turn on all the fans. Then, I will plop it under our gas broiler for five minutes or so a side. After, I give it a rest. Maybe that’s the key. Giving it a rest. I never knew how to do that when I was younger. We cut it in half and have some red wine…I like a dash of A1, honestly. It’s a perfect Sunday evening dinner, winter or summer, special and ordinary at the same time.