When I eat steak I think of my father.
As a kid I spent the summers sailing and swimming, and Memorial Day weekend was the when the races started, accompanied by a series of parties, picnics and cookouts. My parents and their friends would set up either at the spar loft — a sort of pavilion under which masts were stacked for storage during the colder half of the year — or on the lawn next to the playground. Blankets were put down or sticky splintery tables were spread with… With what? Potato salad, almost certainly, next to and almost indistinguishable from the macaroni salad; chips and snacks; deviled eggs; maybe some carrot and celery sticks; bags of oblong and circular buns for the hot dogs and hamburgers; brownies or a simple cake, maybe.
We had a brown van back then and I once left a perfect imprint of my seven or eight year old foot in a chocolate sheet cake when I came up from the rear to stand by my parents. There were no seats in the back, no seat belts, and I moved around freely in the moving vehicle, oblivious to the cake that was on the floor between my mom and dad. We ate around my Buster Brown.
It was a different time, to be sure. The adults circled the cooler, drinking and smoking, and we kids ran around the grounds unsupervised like it was our backyard, the younger ones wearing life jackets in case they fell into the murky river. We were little bronze water babies, with deep tan lines and green hair from too much time in the pool. We hid among the Lightning and Star boats dry docked at the south end and played with the hoists until we were yelled at to stop. There was a lot of beer, probably a keg. These folks being dinghy sailors, they took many of their calories in cheap liquid form, and my father’s belly was ample proof of this. He was David by birth but these friends called him Gus, a childhood nickname that stuck. Gus’s beer gut was legendary, spoken of as a separate entity.
When it got dark we trapped lightning bugs and tried in vain to avoid mosquitoes. If the coals were still hot and we were lucky there were s’mores, or at least toasted marshmallows. The parties went late, and the children were sometimes put to bed in the back of a car or under a tree on a brown blanket with a white border and a sailboat in one corner. There was a red plaid one, too, and they changed hands over and over, depending on whose kids were wrapped up in them when the keg was kicked and it was time to drive (drive!) home.
After beer, the grill was king at these things. Burgers and hot dogs were a given, but there was sometimes chicken, I think, and occasionally steak. My dad was partial to bacon wrapped filet mignon (but then who isn’t) and if he was feeling flush or particularly irresponsible this little luxury would be on the menu too. Whether this is a dream or it actually happened doesn’t matter, but I have a distinct memory of my dad telling me in no uncertain terms that medium rare was the only way to eat steak. I took his words to heart and have never given it another thought. These days I prefer it rarer, actually, and overcooked steak is one of the few things I don’t hesitate to send back to a restaurant kitchen.
This was not a problem more than 25 years later on a cold March night in Paris. There were three of us at the table. Next to me along the wall was my oldest friend, just arrived from New York, and across from me sat my newest, a native. The old friend was sleep deprived and heartbroken. I had encouraged her to make this weekend trip, to get away for a few days, and I tried to stay positive in the face of her despondency. She took pictures – something she does very well — while the Parisian and I chose a wine and privately lamented the crossbeam under the table. I hurt for her and rejoiced for him.
He ordered the foie de veau and she and I chose the côte de boeuf for two. The slab of meat that was placed before us on a thick chopping block was bright magenta red, fantastically seared. It was as big as one of my thighs, and it took the three of us to finish it.
It could have been my heart on the table, bloody and oozing, spread out in pieces. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have shared it with more that night.
Except my father.