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”) topped with Ragu from the jar. This was kicked up with the addition of whatever limp veggies and olives my mom had in the fridge. We also had salmon loaf in the early years, and salmon fillets as the decade grew older and perhaps my parents became a little wealthier. Like all home cooks, my mom would grow bold, resulting in 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 vegetables or salad.
At last, 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 certainly didn’t! We didn’t eat red meat!
Tentatively, I made forays towards it, eating bites of other people’s strips and filets from their plates, in exchange for what I had ordered, usually the weirdest thing on the menu, because that was me. Clueless about steak, fluent in shellfish. And then, late in my chaotic, epic, very fun sophomore year, towards the very tail end of the spring semester, the slow smiling Mid-Western boy that I loved invited me to dinner with his parents- finally.
We had started out pleasantly and cutely enough. We’d met late my Freshman year, in one of those tap-on-the-shoulder “excuse me, my friend thinks you’re cute” situations. In this case, his friend had tapped my shoulder. Indicating the table behind him, I saw two young men. One was tremendous, at least the size of a refrigerator. The other was very handsome. Of course it was the fridge would liked me. But oh! For once, I was wrong.
For a month, we were pretty classic. Coffees, and walks, and drinks, and general hanging out and talking. One night, when he opted to stay in, I went by and surprised him. He opened the door with such a look of genuine delight, it delighted me. But during finals, we had a fight. I thought it was just a fight. He thought I was breaking up with him. But I never got that memo, so all summer I periodically called him and sent him actual, written letters. And when I got back, we kind of, sort of, took up where we left off. Although he seemed less delighted. But delighted enough with a frequency that kept me on my toes.
The dinner invitation was a coup and a half. I had eagerly introduced him to every person that I ever spoke to, met, or came to visit me, including but not limited to: my best guy friend from high school, my little sister, my high school guidance counselor. And he… did not. In fact- this is where things get even more complicated- earlier in the year he had taken another girl– another girl he was dating– to meet his parents, rather than me. That girl that was also sort of his girlfriend, and also sort of not, or so he insisted to my face. Rumor had it otherwise; that she was indeed his girlfriend, and I was indeed not. To make the whole thing so much for fun and interesting, she and I had overlapping friends, so she was sort of my friend and sort of not, because how? She was from Minnesota! It actually 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!) So you can see how there was some confusion. I’m dizzy even writing it.
I should have revolted, right? I mean, there were plenty of boys, including one much closer to me, smart and adorable, who vied for my attention and whom I liked too. A lot. And fine, we stole some kisses here and there. And fine, he was roommates with aforementioned slow smiler. (His parents I did meet! While sitting only partially clothed in their living room, early one Saturday morning, having stayed the night. Not at all awkward! “Aren’t you just the cutest? His mom said, appraising me.) And yet… and yet… and yet… That semester, I clung to the slow-smiler like barnacle to a ship bottom, rocking along with the tide. Because I just really liked him- no,I loved him- and that slow smile, and his secret nerdiness. As a dedicated reader and romantic, to me that love 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… and so we always did meet. I made sure of it.
The tension between us was constant. In private, we talked for hours about books and Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, and just life. (Middlemarch was a passion of both of ours; still is for me. We used to call and recite passages to each other, though they were often unfortunately more Lydgate than Ladislaw, because I don’t think we really go it back then.) We were truly nerds, and without any external bullshit around, got each other. When it was just we two, was pretty wonderful and romantic… and that spring, that second half of Sophomore year, and on into the summer, it was mostly very wonderful. Sometimes we spent all night kissing on a dock in Lake Mendota, the spring night turning into a summer day around us.
If it had been up to me, we’d have been birds in a tree, or spiders on that dock, all the time, 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.
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 so many other people to fall in love with. Why was I wasting my time? She thought slow-smile was duller than dull, and that his roommate was a much preferably option. She was likely right.
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 student colleagues wore black pants and stacked heeled boots, or jeans and Timberlands, we wore pencil skirts and twin sets and thick-heeled pumps with open toes, simply perfect for letting the slush freeze the soles of your feet. 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, and drank sweet martini shaped drinks (but not actual martinis), 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 was a spate of martini lounges and bars, 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 slow smiler’s parents. The other girl was away on her semester abroad, and as we all know, a bird in hand and all that… I was now the one, again. 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. (Meanwhile, his roommate was now in love with a darkly glamorous senior, whom I adored, and who also seemed to be having an affair with her roommate. The best friend role was played by moi, and I walked him through a lot of scenarios.)
That evening, at the Tornado Room, I was exceedingly hung over. And also terribly nervous which 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, eager to like me. Time to turn on the charm.
To compound my nerves, that very evening, the boy and I, for some reason, were “fighting.” I called him to arrange meeting, and did not hear back, so I simply arrived on my own. It was possible that showing up at a location together was too much of a commitment for him. 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.
So, I arrived, to find his parents seated, and he was nowhere in site. Shaking, I sat and smiled.
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.
Slow smiler shook his head with disgust. His mother looked at me, concerned. This was “lame, lame, lame” to quote Joan Rivers. HIs father went on with the conversation, pleasantly, friendly.
“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 else’s 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. Like my parents, she was a librarian and he was a lawyer. Slow smiler warmed up, as he always did, 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. I sat, contributing nothing. I was fluent in football, but we were in baseball season now, and I was a Yankee fan in Brewer territory. I was too smart to pipe up.
The food arrived. Rib-eyes for the men. A petit filet for the mom. That 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, you know.” She whispered to me, all flat “a”s and smiling eyes.
I must have looked very puzzled… my hair was bobbed to the jaw, blown impeccably smooth and straight.
“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. 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 moment. Once, in a state of fury at him, I ran out of a bar into the pouring summer rain. As I bolted, so did the thunder. The rain streamed into pools, and I felt myself slipping. As I nearly fell on my face, his strong arms picked me up, and held me near. He had followed me. 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 and his cigarettes too. I am not entirely sure why I did this. But I don’t regret it! All those GQ’s and Men’s Healths… I had bathroom reading for weeks.
By the fall, we finally fizzled. My pigtails were not being pulled. The other girl came home. 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 still 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… and has been ever since. Now I understand.
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 picked me up properly that chilly fall night, at my apartment door. I wore a hot pink cashmere sweater, with an “M” embroidered on chest, and a black pleated skirt. He didn’t tell me where we were going. I trotted to keep up with him, as he strode from my place on the Lower East Side towards SoHo. On the corner of Lafayette Street, he stopped for a moment and turned to me. We kissed on the street, 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 for once told me that she celebrated her anniversary with her husband there every year. I was fully impressed with Rob’s choice and so happy! It was chic and classic and New York City, all the things I aspired to. 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 I of him.
And now once in a while, but not too often, I will buy the best New York Strip I can find. I will salt it lightly but not liberally, open all the windows, and turn on all the fans. Then, I will plop it under the 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 used to like a dash of A1. Now I make my own (one part ketchup, three parts Worcester Sauce.) It’s a perfect Sunday evening dinner, winter or summer, special and ordinary at the same time.