Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whatever your tradition, Happy Thanksgiving

3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and I’m wide awake. I’m writing this from a little town dotted in the middle of a cornfield (literally) in Northwestern Ohio. This is where Lisa’s family lives and where I’m thankful she escaped from. If I wanted a life partner that hails from some romantic far-off shore, I looked in the wrong place. Her family is as pure bred mid western American as it gets. All are hard working with a do-the-right-thing mentality. They were warm and inviting when I met them for the first time – 10 Thanksgivings ago –and they are no less today. Lisa’s Dad is an interesting man. He’s a guy that can fix anything and he is quite accepting of the fact that I can fix nothing. Instead of lecturing me on how I should possess some of these qualities, he just brings his tool box down to Florida a couple of times a year and swings his hammer around my house until the jobs are done. He’s fixed soffits, rewired rooms, built gates, installed lighting and generally picked up the slack for his inept son-in-law. His conversation is intelligent and engaging. I love when this guy visits and I love visiting him. So here I am.

Earlier this month I wanted to get a traditional Thanksgiving recipe up since I haven’t written a new recipe in a while. I’ve come to realize that wasn’t going to happen. It turns out my life isn’t very traditional. Currier and Ives has no colorful depiction of my last 43 years. Now this isn’t a complaint, mind you, just a fact. I’ve travelled for a living for the past 7 years and I now have an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale where I spend my weeks as my family continues their life 4 hours away. As a very young boy, I recall a family steeped in tradition. We all gathered at Grandma’s house (on my mom’s side) in Erie, Pennsylvania and sat at one very long table that ran the entire length of their formal dining room. I remember saying grace then passing around platter after platter of very traditional fare. From a foodie point of view in the 21st century, most of you would have been appalled. Boxed, canned and processed was considered en vogue. In the 1960’s, canned foods were in their adolescence and the idea of opening canned corn and canned cranberry sauce was way more appealing than making it. I was well into my 30’s before canned vegetables disappeared from my own pantry. Still, it was these moments that I remember from my earliest Thanksgivings and Christmases that are the only remnants of true traditional family holidays.

When I was 6, we moved to Florida permanently. Like many others, my folks really needed to escape the cold weather. Winters in Erie could be brutal. My dad’s parents had already made the break to the south some years earlier and we had spent a year there when I was about 3 before returning to the snow. We actually rented a place just a few blocks from where I currently live on Lake Tarpon while my parents had a house built. We returned to Erie a few more times over the years for occasional holidays and family get-togethers. Our last big family gathering was when I was 16 for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. All my cousins and aunts and uncles celebrated her joyous life. She was humble and ladylike in all she did. She never wore pants, only skirts or dresses, and her hair and makeup were always done just subtly perfect. I was her youngest grandchild and she paid me every bit of attention that a youngest grandchild could ever hope for. The next year, grandma died. She left with me, though, the memory of a striking woman who took her matriarchal responsibilities very seriously. Now that mom and her siblings are also all gone, I’m glad I had those times.

After those early years, holidays became a hodgepodge. When we didn’t go up north, we would have Thanksgiving and Christmas with just the three of us. It was caring and loving and I was oh-so-thankful that I could ride a new bike on Christmas morning without the cold, but there was something missing without the family all gathered together. When I started my own family, I was in the military where tradition is hard to maintain. Then my colorful 20’s produced a couple of marriages and 5 kids. This made it even more impossible to make holiday gatherings consistent. Make no mistake, we’ve had spectacular holidays. It’s really about surrounding yourself with those you love and not who’s house you gather at. My kids and I have managed to be together most holidays and for that I am grateful.

Being with Lisa’s family transports me back to a time when I was a child. Her dad’s house has the same creaky floors that grandma’s did. They use a tea kettle that whistles and the coffee is instant. When we gather later today at Aunt Linda’s house, the cranberry sauce will come from a can and I will eat it. The green bean casserole will be topped with canned fried onions and I will eat it. There will not be one dish from Bon Appétit magazine or The Food Network or anywhere else other than the 3x5 card index that Aunt Linda has been using for as long as she’s been making the holiday meal. I can’t wait for the raspberry pie (made with raspberry jell-o, sugar, cornstarch and frozen raspberries). The kids will run around like mad, the ladies will gather and chat and the guys will gawk at the always lopsided Thanksgiving football games. Later, a friendly card game will develop in the basement where I plan to clean out Aunt Betty yet another year. While I’m not with my older kids this Thanksgiving, I am helping my 5-year-old Olivia form her future tradition with Lisa’s family. My wish is that she grows to cherish that as I did.

Sorry for no Thanksgiving holiday recipe this year (it is a food blog after all), but instead just a hope and wish for you to be surrounded by loving family. I do plan on cooking for Christmas and I do plan on playing with a few new recipes for the holiday meal, so I will be sharing that in the coming weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!!!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An American Institution

I know I’ve written a lot about steaks lately so let me apologize right up front. I have no greater affinity for steak than I do other foods; I love it all. It’s just that I’ve been to a couple of places lately that commanded my attention and last week was no different. On my second trip to New York City in less than a month, I was planning to have at least one great meal. On my first trip, I worked too many hours to really seek out anything other than the great neighborhood food that Chelsea has to offer. While I wasn’t even remotely disappointed with that idea, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to look for that special destination that I always look for. This time would be different. My hours were a bit more normal at work so the evenings were mine.

After reading about and seeing several TV spots dedicated to Peter Luger Steak House, I wondered how far my Long Island hotel was from the place. Turns out, Great Neck, NY (just outside the city) had a location 12 miles from me –so off I went. I was pretty excited. I knew that this place had been in business for over a hundred years. I knew they had a unique way of selecting their prime beef (only certified family members could select the meat). I knew they were rated New York’s #1 steakhouse time and again by many publications. I knew I had to eat there.

Walking in to the restaurant was a bit unimpressive. Dark beams running in the walls, dim colors and stained glass windows inspired thoughts of lederhosen, oversized blond women sloshing steins of beer and large Oktoberfest banners draped across the ceiling. I’m a firm believer in preserving tradition, but I have no need to sit beneath a dimly lit sconce to look at my menu. Plus this is a newer location (there are only 2) just a short ride from the original. They could have fast forwarded at least a few decades, if not a century, from the original.

While many of the reviews I read citied overly rude host and wait staff, I was greeted by friendly people and served by a wonderful waiter who wanted to make sure my first experience here was great. He succeeded. If the décor was unimpressive, the menu is less so. There are only a few choices to select from and there are no real choices on the cut of steak. Everything is “Steak of one”, “Steak for two”, etc. There’s a fish of the day, roast chicken, pork chop, a few sides and appetizers. It’s obviously about the steak. Steaks are always porterhouse. Unfortunately for me, “steak for one” is just the NY strip without the adjacent filet but after watching a few steaks go by, there was no way I could down the two-finger thick “Steak for two”. I settled on the classic Peter Luger meal: a tomato and onion salad, a slice of grilled bacon, creamed spinach and “Steak for one” with hash browns. The salad was chuck wagon style. Thick sliced onion and thick sliced beefsteak tomato and that’s it.

The waiter said it is eaten with the house made Peter Luger steak sauce. While there was nothing special about this, the steak sauce was great.

It has the requisite smoky, vinegary, tomato-y flavor of most steak sauces with an added horseradish kick. I took a bottle home. The bacon slice was unique, delicious but a little unnecessary.

The creamed spinach was also just… um… well, creamed spinach. Tasty… good… but creamed spinach. I’m not even going to talk about the hash browns.

But the steak! This is what makes Peter Luger famous. Set before me was still a sizzling, pre-sliced NY strip that couldn’t have looked more magnificent. The contrast of dark outer char and pink medium-rare center were only topped by the beefy smell and buttery drippings that are drizzled over the meat tableside.

This could be a post card, a greeting card or a screen saver. The flavor was packed with perfectly dry aged lightness. It was tender, succulent and frankly, the best steak I’d ever eaten.

Seared under an 800 degree broiler just like they were 120 years ago, Luger found a magic that persists. Any disparity about my salad and sides melted away just like the rich mineral-flavored beef did as it passed my lips.

While the critics pan the cash only policy, boring side dishes and marginal service, there are few businesses that have thrived since the late 19th century. Just like the sizzling steak that is set before the guest, that says something. I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, maybe a few things but, hey, this is Peter Luger’s legacy.