It’s time to address the fact that I cook a lot of steak. Realizations like this are a large part of the reason I started food blogging: self-observation and accountability to an audience. Thinking about food means writing about food, and writing about food means organizing those thoughts in interesting and complete ways. I’ve never identified as a person who eats a lot of steak, but undeniably, at least in the last half-year or so, it turns out I am. Why?
Steak doesn’t play a starring role in my childhood memories of food. The dinners that I remember as highlights range from chicken and broccoli from Mandarin Court (sidenote: my favorite thing about the Internet is that it took me under 10 seconds to recall the name of the takeout Chinese place we ordered from in South Jersey when I was eight years old) to rotisserie chicken from the Shop Rite with fresh corn on the cob and canned baked beans. We ate a lot of chicken when I was growing up - chicken curry with kidney beans, baked breaded chicken, chicken noodle soup - and the steak that I do remember eating was cooked well-done, chewy and dipped in A-1 sauce, nothing that piqued my appetite.
I’d theorize that this in part has to do with the time frame: I was three years old in 1990, when fears about mad cow disease began to become widespread. A handful of deaths in England from consuming meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy created a ripple effect of paranoia about eating cows that took years to dissipate. It might also have to do with the fact that my parents were of the generation who read Frances Moore Lappe in their twenties and were averse to or, at the least, always somewhat ambivalent about buying and eating meat. There was a sense at that time, in the ’90s, that chicken was a kind of ‘compromise’: misguided health advice propagated the myth that chicken is significantly lower in fat and cholesterol than ‘red meat,’ which was imbued in the popular imagination with visions of decadence, hedonism, and heart disease.
A few years later, I’d eaten medium-rare steak at restaurants, usually firmly on the medium side, and almost always with either or both my mother and stepgrandmother present, both of whom are the type who will lean over your shoulder in a steadfastly maternal manner (love you, mom), watching as you cut your meat, emitting a running commentary of things like is that done enough? that’s not done enough! look, it’s bloody in the middle! do you want to eat that? you don’t want to eat that. there’s blood in it! blood! you’ll get sick! do you want to send it back? we should send it back! blood! which (even if your steak is done perfectly to your preference and you subscribe wholly to the school of thought that a steak cooked above medium-rare is a steak not worth eating) is enough to make you feel sort of anxious and guilty about your carnivorous desires.
I think the first time I ate home-cooked steak that was visibly on the rarer side of medium rare (or, the true definition of medium rare: the steak is red and soft in the middle, but the meat is warm throughout) was at my ex’s parents’ house, in high school: his mother, who I can honestly assert is the most talented non-professional cook I have ever known (and better than a fair number of paid chefs), served whole beef tenderloins from which I ate ambrosiac circles of filet mignon that bled bright red into mounds of perfect, fluffy Julia Child mashed potatoes. I remember feeling somewhat daunted by the unfamiliarity of this, almost the way I felt as a teenager when I was served wine at dinner, a sense of naughty nervousness, waiting for someone to swipe my dish away. At sixteen, I’d just come off of being vegan for nearly a year, and it seemed that in the meantime, while I’d been eating lentil loaf and scrambled tofu, a new and omnivorous adult diet had been lying in wait.
It didn’t take long to realize that I liked steak specifically this way, that I loved it; the way the pockets of flesh burst individually, cell by cell, between my teeth, releasing tiny floods of myoglobin hidden within the seared and salty exterior, rich with crispy, browned bits of tender fatty tissue. I’d expected eating steak to disgust or at least unnerve me, the sheer palpable animalness of it, but instead I was comforted, reassured. In adulthood, eating chicken doesn’t appeal strongly to me (and for good reason - as a teenage vegan PETA member and a food politics student in college and thereafter, I’m well-versed in the gory details of factory farming); with the exception of a few expert preparations, I have trouble finding it appetizing. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of commercially produced dairy, of pork products (with the indefensible but well-documented exception of bacon), and, to be honest, of beef that isn’t both high-quality and well prepared. In some ways, this is legitimate: small-farmed, grass-fed steak is accessible if not always affordable, and the risk of foodborne illness is lower than that of any other meat product.
On another level, however, my soft spot for steak runs admittedly more in the vein of magical thinking than of science. I share my parents’ ambivalence about eating meat, and I am realistic about the fact that an omnivorous diet in 2011 is no safer nor less complex a decision than in 1991. I work actively to be conscious about why I eat what I do, how my appetites are impacted by various contexts, sociological and biological. A cut of steak, bought thoughtfully and cooked sparingly, has nothing to hide. Patted dry, rubbed lovingly with coarse salt, and eaten without the pretexts of sauces or marinades or sides or even temperatures running higher than 125 degrees. When eating meat, I don’t want to have to try to distract myself from questions of mortality; I want to take the opportunity to engage directly with them, viscerally and intellectually.
These days, my favorite meal is a single steak, medium rare, locally produced, humanely raised and processed, generously sized, usually setting me back between twelve and twenty-two dollars a pound. One plate, four hands, two mouths. Nothing more, nothing less.