The Old Man and the Beef
by Kate Zimmerman for City Palate and Best of City Palate
(It is true that in this world there are men who cook every day, well or poorly, and do not expect acclaim. There are women like this as well. But in the experience of this writer, a man prepares for a dinner party quite differently from a woman.
He does not perceive the need for a marathon of cleaning and tidying. He does not trouble himself with the sordid details of scouring the bathroom, making three courses which complement each other or setting the table with ironed napkins rather than paper towels.
Instead, he selects the most spectacular cooking job for himself, fusses over every tiny aspect of it and then reaps the accolades not just for making this dish, but for being a man and being able -- and willing! -- to make this dish.
It is to this sort of man, and to this man’s companion, that the following article is dedicated.)
When a man, just any man, but for the purposes of this story, Everyman, enters the kitchen, it must be in the spirit of the matador.
He must strut, he must flap his apron like a cape at the snorting oven, and he must (preferably to the strains of Toreador from Bizet’s Carmen) sharpen his knife in the air, with great drama.
For HE is going to prepare the MAIN COURSE.
It will be no ORDINARY main course. Men’s main courses are never ordinary. If they were, men would not cheapen themselves by preparing them. They would rather not participate in the dinner party at all than prepare something ordinary, or worst of all, vegetarian.
This extraordinary main course will require the death of an animal, perhaps the fiercest of animals -- if not a bull, then an extremely bitchy cow. An extremely bitchy cow that is now a thick, bloody Porterhouse steak.
The matador knows his task, and it is a good, fine task. He will torture this steak and singe this steak and turn this steak into a feast for which the crowds will cheer and the ladies will throw down the flowers they are wearing in their long, flowing hair.
On this day, just any day, but for the purposes of this story, a Saturday, there is silence in the bullring. From a distant room, the brave matador can hear the whine of the vacuum cleaner as the picador prepares for her minute role in his drama.
The matador is cool. He approaches the thickly marbled beast as if to befriend it, muttering softly in Spanish. With his two enormous hands he slowly coats it in rock salt and black pepper, which he has just finished crushing with forceful bashes of an empty champagne bottle. Gently, he slides the brute onto a broiling pan. Then he lets it sleep.
The matador must now preserve his stamina. He leaves the kitchen and enters the bedroom, which is suddenly full of the irritating noise of the picador dusting and picking the matador’s socks, shoes and magazines off the floor.
He lies down on his bed in the coolness of the afternoon, and he sleeps.
Hours later, he is awakened by the sound of clinking as the picador attempts, somewhat clumsily, to set a table somewhere in the vast and still-dusty plain of the house.
Cursing to himself at this interruption, the matador rises and feels the need to refresh himself with a shower. He emerges from the billowing steam like a proud, nude flamenco dancer and prances about the house singing “Carmen, You Is My Woman Now.” He is confused from his long sleep.
He passes the picador in the hall as he strides purposefully toward the kitchen. The picador glares at him angrily, as if the spirit of the bull has infused her.
But the matador cannot be distracted. He brushes aside evidence of the picador's meddling. In the arena of the kitchen, dirty bowls and pans signifying some unimportant project of hers are cluttering up the ledges.
The matador sighs the long, deep sigh of the martyr. He throws the dirty bowls aside, where the wild dog of the house will soon draw sustenance from the batter encrusting them.
He cannot be drawn away from his purpose. At the edge of the arena, the bullfighter stands quietly, head bowed. Suddenly, he thrusts his chest forward and struts proudly to the centre of the ring. With a dazzling smile at the dog, he unfurls his blood-red apron, aims a sharp glance at the clock, and approaches the dormant, pepper-encrusted monster.
The matador, and the beast, must now wait. They eye each other cautiously, but with intensity. The matador circles the bull -- a difficult task since it is resting on the counter.
A bell rings. The matador looks up from his prey angrily. The picador answers the door and greets the crowd in a hushed tone, leading the men and women to their places round the ring of the arena.
They stand in silence; they are not allowed ice cubes in their drinks. They do not want to frighten the bull or enrage the matador. The picador also knows better. She knows, as well, that the matador didn’t bother to make any ice.
The matador tosses his head. He knows he must melt some butter on top of the stove; he knows he must add some chopped tarragon to the butter. And he must do it now.
He clicks his heels together. He snaps his castanets. He turns on the front element and places the small pot on top. The butter begins to sizzle. The people in the crowd gaze at him and then at each other in wonderment. They say nothing. They are not stupid, these people. Even the matador, so proud and so arrogant, will grant them that.
The picador has not done her job. The oven is not yet as hot and red as a Madrid sunset. The matador once again sighs the long, deep sigh of the martyr. With a deft movement, he turns the switch and an angry red light goes on.
It is time. He clicks his castanets thrice, brusquely, in a manner that at once suggests blood, death, resurrection and The Clapper. The crowd has stopped breathing. The picador wonders if she should call 9-1-1. She knows the matador will not allow it.
Now he picks up the beast, recumbent in its broiling pan, and approaches the glowering oven. As the matador eases open the door, smoke billows into the kitchen. He smiles the smile of the devil. He slides the pan so close to the upper element it seems the bull must explode. The smell of singed meat and roasting peppercorns fills the arena.
But it is not yet time. The crowd knows it must not yet utter even a small “Bravo.” The tarragon butter is bubbling in its pot. The matador seizes a bottle of caramel-colored Calvados and lifts it to his lips. He takes a draught, then wipes his mouth with his sleeve, sneering. The picador does not register her usual disgust, which is both the disgust of the co-host and the disgust of the long-suffering wife. She waits. Everyone waits.
They watch as the matador pours the Calvados freely into another small pot, turns a switch and sets the pot on the element.
He steps back. He leans down and squints into the oven. He sees a blackened beast, a proud savage now broken. He turns the slab of meat over and jabs it back under the broiler. The moment of truth is near. Two minutes pass. The beast is pulled out again, this time to be slashed dramatically into helpless bloody strips and thrust back into the fire once more.
Now the matador rolls up his apron and uses it to protect his massive hands as he slides the conquered monster out of the oven. The picador springs into action, prodding the crowd to take its seats. The matador struts to the table bearing the beast. He returns to the arena for a low, dramatic bow and comes back, holding the hot Calvados. He strikes a pose, then strikes a match, touching it to the liquor. It bursts into fire.
Then, as the crowd stares, transfixed, the matador pours the flaming Calvados upon his trophy.
He hears a roar. Has the ferocious bull come back to life? For a moment, and it is the first moment in a very long while, the bullfighter experiences fear. But then he realizes the roar is that of the crowd, which has risen to scream its approval. The ladies are throwing down the roses from their hair. The picador, also, looks faintly impressed, even though her appetizer has been forgotten.
The matador douses the flames with the tarragon butter. He sits down. He bows his head. He rests. He waits for more applause. He knows that on this day, he has made himself a legend.
TURKEY HILL PEPPER STEAK
1 Spencer or Porterhouse steak, cut 2” to 2-1/2” thick
whole peppercorns, crushed by putting them in a paper bag and pounding them with a champagne bottle
1/2 lb. butter
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 cup Calvados (French apple brandy)
Melt butter with tarragon on low heat and set aside.
Put steak on broiler pan. Pat some salt into both sides, along with lots of crushed (not powdered) peppercorns. Let steak sit until it reaches room temperature. Then, throw under hot broiler for 2-1/2 to 3 minutes per side.
Remove steak from broiler and cut into 1/2” thick strips. Put back under broiler for another two minutes. Warm the Calvados. Pull steak out, transfer to heat-proof platter, transport to table. Pour Calvados over, light liquor. As oohs and ahs subside, douse flames with tarragon sauce. Toss and serve.
(Kate Zimmerman got this recipe for Turkey Hill Pepper Steak from her gourmet friend John Boys, who got it from gourmet friends of his. They think it is best served with “frites” and peas, or an endive salad with garlic sauce. In the spirit of total overkill, Zimmerman likes it with The New Basics Cookbook’s Beet and Coriander Puree and Upper Crust Potatoes. Of course, her motto is “Live fast, die young and leave a well-marbled corpse.”)
Writing > Humour