It glistened while it spattered. A dangerous smell had already filled the second-floor apartment. What in the world was I to do?
The Weinsteins had moved from an elm-lined, tulip-strewn street in Midwood, Brooklyn — two-family houses built in the 1920s — to a “development” in Howard Beach, Queens, the year before I would have graduated from eighth grade in Public School 238. I was confused about being uprooted, which sounds like a common U.S. story, of army brats and kids of World War II parents looking for postwar jobs. I’m not claiming I was happy where I’d been; “whiny” and “bored” were my labels, which I wore with some pride because I kept pleasures and other things to myself, as some children must.
I should say that the phrase “the Weinsteins” would have made me grin, because we weren’t that kind of family. We left our rental in a sullen hurry, with as many parent arguments as boxes.
Helping Mom and Dad shop and cook gave me more satisfaction than anything else I did at home. But I wasn’t cooking, merely watching and acting as baby line-chef, reading the two or three stained cookbooks on a counter stool as if they were sacred texts and beating eggs or milk into a bowl of boxed cake mix when my pleas were allowed. I’d like to claim I own a core “knife memory,” how to hold the instrument in my hand, slicing a rubber brick of Velveeta — I must have done — or instructed to chop an onion.
No, she never showed me that.
I can’t recall a Midwood knife of any kind, though one of Dad’s unexplained visitors, who sat his rangy frame in our single living-room padded chair, reached into his pocket and pulled out a handgun. Touch it, he no doubt said. My eyes must have been wide.
It was gleaming silver, like his pants. Who knows what caliber. Buddy’s hair was charcoal black, like his eyes, and he was handsome, I’d realize later, butch handsome. Porn handsome.
Those still reading haven’t been completely disgusted by the photo of animal muscle above. That’s the first thing I cooked all by myself, a year or so before my bar mitzvah. And it’s what I cooked yesterday, for the second time in my life, 60 years later. There’s probably little difference in the bloody mass, or even in the short life of the two unconnected cows.
Were they steers? Couldn’t figure that out. Regular divorcement of meat from its source is part of the reason I must go back and forth, then and now, which hasn’t stopped in any important way.
Not even cows, but heifers. Because I cook and rarely eat out, I devour much less 21st-century meat and take care where it comes from. Maybe I’ll read myself, be confused, guilty, and give it up entirely. My flesh story has one foot in a young place, the other in purgatory.
Mom was in bed for almost a year, and I never understood why. She put on makeup every day and seemed to be able to manage, and of course I was glad of that. But I had to do much of the cleaning and a lot of the cooking. Dad was away a lot, working, or whatever.
Progresso minestrone with bottled cheese, Chef Boyardee plop-pillows: I used the pink electric can opener, a Mother’s Day gift, it turned out, to me.
One day, Edythe called me into the bedroom and said it was time for us to have a real meal, a roast beef.
“You can do it, it’s easy.”
I have no true memory of this declaration, but how else would I have gotten to the point of opening a new, cheap, built-in oven door, my pimpled face blasted with heat and meat?
After years of being told that diabetic children should stay away from knives and flames because we don’t heal well, all caution was thrown aside. Should I have been grateful or suspicious? There’s no answer when parents are dead, and little brother would never admit that I could cook or do anything.
Was I born with a need to please, or did childhood cooking and cleaning create it? I’ve learned to recognize this subservient kink — which can turn sexual — as well as resist the servant impulse in social and political situations, when being asked to compute a check at a dinner for eight (“Jeff, you’re so good at this”) or wrangle for a wage increase at the bargaining table.
Cooking is pleasing. Will it please me?
There’s a narrow way in which food is independent of cooking. In most cultures, men assume this more than women do, because in spite of what we read and see on screen, women do the hot work and men open their mouths. So cooking only for one’s self provides an unusual opportunity to blend “food gender.”
But you can’t roast a beef for yourself.
The animal was killed, and if you bring it into your home, you must find a way to acknowledge that death. Buying fussy sausages or Costco infinite ham excuses us with a physical, formal distance. A whole bird, guts inside, or four-pound top round does not.
My big treat in paradisal Brooklyn was a coffee-shop roast beef sandwich on buttered kaiser roll with seeds, nothing else except maybe a clink-clink-stirred egg cream. Perched on a red-topped metal stool, I salted the two-inch pile of rare meat with a shaker and started to bite, chew, swallow. Was I eating right? Crumbs fell on my thighs. When you’re young, nothing public is automatic. City children, especially then, knew how it tasted, but not what it was.
When I told my friend Melvyn, who was raised on a leafy block in Yonkers (just north of New York City) about my roast beef relationship, he immediately said, “I love roast beef!” in an intimate tone that confirmed our age and tribe.
Old folks like us go on about the jewels our moms and grandmas placed on the table, imagining a flavor ancestry that means the ah! chopped liver or ooh! stuffed artichoke was made for us — for me — alone.
It’s hardly a new idea, soul-and-body connection to family food, but let’s say our kitchen caregivers were writers or painters. Would we feel a similar umbilical attachment to their work?
I’m not an artist, and words don’t come to help me limn the difference, in sense and thought, between eating vegetables and meat. I’m not referring to the moral and ethical juxtaposition, or a measure of large and small economies, or the alarming things industrial meats and crops do to our weeping planet. Vegetables, grains, fish and flesh have been made to share juices and fibers as we negotiate the daily bargain of feeding ourselves.
Plants can be twisted and irked to taste like meat, which means you can scrape xylem and phloem faux fond off your All-Clad and beget gravy without the grr. Perhaps foods in our many markets should have Ingmar Bergman masks on, medieval spectres of payback and punishment, and not just the guilt number on my Whole Foods cut of cow leg, last week’s Amazon Prime Member Deal.
In the old century, even last week, my juicy roast beef recipe would start here.
It’s so easy, even an 11-year-old could make it.