[Post originally appeared in November, now digitally remastered since some readers missed it after I took it off to edit.]
When my wife Karen and I would go to Jumbalaya, a Peabody, Massachusetts restaurant that promised a combination of Tex-Mex and Creole food, she always seemed to be smirking. I should have taken this as an early warning sign that she, as a Texan, would have no truck with rice-filled Yankee wraps masquerading as burritos. In near-pure husbandly love, I decided recently to take my Texan wife out to find a true Tex-Mex dinner where we live now in New York City. Big mistake.
To put into perspective, full relief, the Absolute Dunderheadedness which I embodied on that Saturday night, I must detail the Prologue, which – as the word indicates – is a “forward word” on said dunderheadedness, a foretaste of Simplemindedness amidst wisdom and savvy on the Upper West Side, a foreshadowing of many dollars spent later on subway and taxi fare, babysitting, and dinner to modest if any effect – yes, a prelude to a nuptial depth charge.
On the heels of a wonderful Thanksgiving feast out on the south shore of Long Island, home of my aunt and uncle and five of my cousins, at which we enjoyed the standard fixings of this most traditional of American meals, I decided on a somewhat different route for our Freeman Home fare for that Friday. In the past, I have enjoyed cooking a turkey with all the trimmings: green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, a dessert and, of course, a special stuffing that I usually vary from year to year and experiment with, one of which was the famous chestnut and wild cherry version I tried a few years back and bragged about the other day to my downstairs neighbor Peter as we both walked our kids to P.S. 9. This year, however, I opted for a main dish I’d cooked in 2003 for my team and boss at a former place of employ: a prime rib. I had cooked it then quite well, and to everyone’s amazement, it tasted as good as it smelled and looked and, more importantly, my boss – a meat-and-potatoes-man from Cedar Grove, Wisconsin – seemed happy enough with it and, most importantly, I had expensed the meat from a local Stop-n-Shop grocery store. I never “felt” the effect of the per-pound stomach punch that this wonderful beef had caused and, what’s more, this was before the Federal bailout of AIG and others and I had no thought of ever recouping my losses through other means, as I have now, two days following the Beef Incident at Citarella.
As you’ll recall from the paragraph above, which no doubt you read carefully – especially if you are among my family and friends who have been hearing first-hand from an unnamed source whom I sleep with every night and whom I suspect of secretly ruining my culinary reputation on Facebook and other social networking devices ranging from the telephone to the standard Christmas party – there was an Incident involving beef. At Citarella. On the Upper West Side. Where people generally know their food. And so, ostensibly, did I.
I sallied forth into that shop after a successful outing at Fairway, where I had limited my damage to approximately $33. My new goal was to get a rib roast of about seven pounds – “three or four ribs” the recipe for 6 to 8 people called for. My wife Karen – hereafter referred to as the Culinary Reputation Assassin; I suspect her sending out defamatory emails and Status Updates at 2 a.m. while I am sleeping only feet away – had asked only that I cook something that would produce leftovers. Like beef stroganoff.
“Oh!” I scoffed, with the best Burt Wolf haughty laugh I could muster. “It has to be something Thanksgiving-ish.” And I had considered privately: turkey, duck, goose, quail, pheasant…rib roast. Ham as a last resort. No, it must be somewhat extravagant. Remember, I had expensed the meat last time…
I entered Citarella with my two bags printed “Fairway” on the side, thinking ahead five minutes or so when I could walk the ten blocks home with a “Citarella” bag alongside them for all the viewing public to see, the way some women – vain creatures all – carry Gucci or Hermes or Bergdorf. I went to the butcher and started explaining what I wanted.
“Sure,” he started, “got it right here.” And he held up a piece of meat that he explained was about nine pounds. (Honestly, it might have been of the quality to be made into Whopper Juniors the next morning, but I didn’t know the difference. I played along as if.)
“I don’t need that much. Only about seven pounds. Three or four ribs.” Oh, Lord, I hope he doesn’t ask me any more questions, because I’m out of culinary talk. I’ll have to pretend I’ve forgotten how to speak English.
“OK. I can cut that. You want it from the wide end or the short end?” The meat did in fact taper slightly. Damn that meat – why couldn’t it be cylindrical! I think I can bluff this one by telling him what I know instead of what I don’t know, which is copious. “Well, I’m browning it and then cooking it for about three hours at 250.”
“OK,” – he bit – “I’ll cut it off this end” – indicating the smaller – “and that should be fine.”
He turned his back to me so he could slice, and I figured I was out of the woods. Little did I know the snake was about to strike.
Facing me once again, he placed on the counter a package the size of a large loaf of bread. It was the size of a Boston terrier’s torso, wrapped in Citarella paper inside a clear plastic bag and twist-tied. A label with bar code was inside that bag on the inner wrapper. He patted the meat approvingly.
“Nice treat here!” he said and smiled.
“Yeah. Once-a-year thing.” And I started to walk away, with the torso in my right hand, label facing up. Then I knew why he was smiling; then I knew why The Culinary Reputation Assassin had picked up the phone first thing when I came home with the Incident-Creating beef.
I had purchased 7.7 pounds, at $20.99 per pound. You do the math; I can’t say it here before a mixed audience. Of course, while it was pride and embarrassment and certain Reputation Death at returning the meat to the butcher, I told myself that it certainly must be store policy that once you ask for a cut of meat, you’re obligated to purchase it. Certainly.
In the next few feet of store, I was trying to figure out how to dodge the bullet of the Assassin, but I realized there was no way. The cashier asked me whether, in addition to the $162 (there, I said it) worth of gallows equipment I had just purchased, I would like to donate to the March of Dimes.
“Sure. Add on ten dollars.” Like a bitter pull of nicotine charity before the firing squad.
When I reached home and told Karen what had happened, to her credit, she kind of smiled in stunned disbelief – as if losing 40% of our IRA since mid-September wasn’t enough – and then blurted, “Oh. Man. I am calling everyone I know.”
And, needless to say, prime rib in the form of cold roast beef doesn’t provide leftovers as conveniently or tastily as, say, stroganoff does. Not sure I can put my finger on it, but cold, congealed beef fat pressing up against the inside of a Glad bag from inside the frig just doesn’t have the same effect as does pulling the sizzling prime rib from the oven after four hours. Now I know why Lidia Bastianich smiles more than most Gristedes deli counter workers.
That was Friday. Then there was Saturday night.
Karen had said, specifically, she didn’t want Mexican food, nor did she want to go to the Lower East Side. She said that specifically, and if I missed it, I wasn’t listening to her. Her sentiments were couched in the reality that Tex-Mex is best captured by restaurants within the Lone Star State and found outside its borders only by those who hail from within them. In other words, a New Yorker like me had no business claiming I had found a “Mexican restaurant” anywhere, especially with the beef fiasco of the day before. I had proven myself useful navigating the subway system when Karen met me after moving to New York in 1995, a prime reason for which she married me and to which I should limit my expertise in the coming days.
I had been to a restaurant called The Hat years ago, maybe in the late 80s – back when rib roast was only $15 per pound. Only problem is, it was on Stanton Street in – yes – the Lower East Side. Now, I must confess, my intent was somewhat mixed. On the one hand, I wanted to prove that New York had good food of every variety and nationality. I mean, this is New York. And, born and bred here, I had my city’s good name to defend. On the other hand, I sincerely wanted my wife to have some good Mexican food between our visits to Texas. So this presented a unique dilemma: do I swing for the bleachers and strike out, or do I succeed and have my wife’s everlasting devotion to me sealed as the one who helped her find a good chimichanga north of Mamacita’s, a restaurant in her hometown of Kerrville owned by a man named Hagi, who emigrated from Iran in 1976 but has had his Texas driver’s license long enough to know Tex-Mex food better than many locals, especially those from places like North Austin.
I decided to step up to the plate and swing like Casey.
Having taken the 1 train from 86th to 59th, transferred to the D and then to the F at West 4th, exiting at Second Avenue, it was just a short – I mean really short – walk to Stanton Street. The neighborhood was funky, and I really liked it. Unfortunately, this neighborhood did not so much fit her definition of “funky” as it did a crime scene from Law & Order, and a date night is all about what the man does for her – and perhaps rightly so – not what he gets from it. At least this is the law of human interaction: the male pays for everything, and the female gets to critique. Preferably with a growing number of Facebook friends and a calling plan that includes Unlimited Long Distance and $1-per-minute to International zones if she has friends – or can establish them quickly – in places like Bhutan or Cote D’Ivoire.
A half block away, I spotted The Hat and while a smile was coming over my face, she said, “There it is. Looks like a hole in the wall.”
Lesson to all husbands on dates: one man’s funk is another woman’s rat-infested dive. Things were going south very quickly.
My assurances to the contrary completely rendered flaccid, we entered to find seven tables, five of them unoccupied, with Ricardo Arjona blasting from unseen speakers. (It was so loud I said later to Karen that we probably couldn’t have heard each other speak. She replied that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear what she’d have to say anyway.) Tables with fading blue plastic tablecloths were circled by wood chairs whose shellac was chipping. The configuration and layout of the 25-foot square room seemed not so much “arranged” as “left as is” by a former owner who suddenly fled the country decades earlier upon learning that real Texans were only blocks away from the front door and headed that way. With the prospect of staying and eating sliding from slim to nil, I did the only thing I could to save face except for backing out with my tail between my legs.
“May we see a menu?” I asked the lady who sidled over to us from the end of the bar. I didn’t know if she was the hostess or simply the customer at table 3 whose turn it was to greet the arriving patrons.
Immediately I became consumed with analyzing the appetizers and entrees and noticed – to my horror and disapproval – that they didn’t serve free-range chicken or gluten-free tortillas, both of which had become of immense importance to me at that moment.
“Thank you,” I smiled at her, and we turned and left.
To compensate, thinking that this might be my one chance at redemption, I said meekly, “I saw a barbecue place around the corner on Orchard. Looked really good…”
“Oh, please,” was her response. No Mexican and no barbecue outside of Texas. Can you not learn that. Please.
At this point, I knew what the narrative was going to be.
I knew that the prime rib and the failed Mexican restaurant, along with the barbecue rejoinder would be inextricably linked in a family dialogue that included the tale of “The Jordan Ford Christmas in July Sale.” This is the story of when my mother-in-law Ginger was driving with my father-in-law Earl in Austin when they were soon to be married, along with his brother, George. The three heard a radio advertisement for a local car dealership announcing, “The Jordan Ford Christmas in July Sale! The sale you’ll be talking about for the rest of your lives!”
“Oh, come on,” Ginger huffed. “We will not be talking about that for the rest of our lives.”
Earl and George looked at each other and one of them – it really doesn’t matter who – said, “Oh, yes we will.”
That was 55 years ago.
The rest of the night goes like this: we hailed a cab to go to the West Village looking for a quiet meal in a quaint neighborhood – adjectives on date nights that start with the letter “q” usually are winners – had a cabbie who was altogether too talkative and wondered aloud whether you could have alcoholic beverages delivered to your apartment from restaurants, “like if you scotch-taped the lid on to a margarita…hee-hee-heee!”; switched our minds on where the cab would take us because I had not a clue on how to remedy matters; got out on 9th Street and Sixth Avenue, which just happened to have a Citarella on the block, into which we sallied forth once more, the Assassin learning quite volubly that it was indeed not store policy to necessarily purchase cut meat; ended up getting back on the uptown train and finally made it to 66th and Broadway, where we were one block away from Il Violino, our favorite Upper West Side restaurant and at which we were served our entrees 135 minutes after leaving home; and where we – happily, nuptially, with smiles and the expected but teasing grief-giving; recalling other incidents which have gained a foothold in family lore; recounting my missteps and foolery from the past 24 hours not just in instant replay but in frame-by-frame, foot-on-the-out-of-bounds-line action; looking at each other as two who would yet experience perhaps some sadness and difficulty and pain in our lives to come, as all life has – we only 11 years into marriage – but also some hilarity and somberness and more than a little tenderness; for we are two people, star-crossed from Texas and New York, who met one Sunday in August in 1995 and became friends that first day, friends who could later go through debacles involving obscenely priced food and food not worth its cost; friends, lovers, a married couple with a babysitter on the clock and three sons asleep – shared her lasagna and his fettuccine alla carbonara, each of them offering portions on a bread plate, “Please. Take another bite,” before heading home. He: full of apprehension of what the next day would hold. She: waiting to call a sister or a friend.
Frankly, anyone who would listen.
photo: ed dame