Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
The Observer has been attempting to teach Junior how to cook recently.
Yours Truly comes from a long line of dudes who cook, juggling the spatula and an unfiltered Camel, frowning something edible into existence from a stack of cans, jars and the occasional splash from a nearby Budweiser. Pa cooked on occasion, God bless him. We still get a hankering from time to time for what he called Shit on a Shingle: dry white toast slathered with a heavy, grease-slicked stew full of ground sausage and veggies — a dish he learned how to make in the Army from a mess cook who grew up on one of the Gullah Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast, accent thick as his gravy. The Observer has attempted the dish from time to time but can't quite get it right. Must have been the cigarette ashes and love, which the original chef is no longer around to provide.
This weekend, class was in session for Junior on the topic of steak. The ability to cook a proper steak is one of the cornerstones of mancooking. The first step, of course, is the meat. Gotta go thick, which means expensive. The Observer picked out a porterhouse as wide as the family Bible and more expensive than our first date with spouse; two full pounds of lovely, red-blooded American Angus, wrapped in white paper by a proper butcher, who blessed our efforts by making the sign of a fork with his scrubbed pale fingers as we walked away from the meat counter.
You've gotta let your meat come to room temperature, son. Stop that snickering over the word "meat" and get the cast-iron skillet out from under the cabinet, the seasoned one, iron black with the mellow glow of old grease. Into the oven the skillet goes for a preheat, hot as your oven will do for a full 20 minutes, hotter than the hinges of hell: 450 degrees good, 500 better. But don't you worry. Iron can take it. Iron is the stuff Detroit motor blocks are made of. Harpoons. Folsom Prison bars. Railroad spikes.
The last 10 minutes the skillet is heating up, let's get the steak ready. Not too soon, or the salt will suck the moisture out. We want moisture. Moisture is good. Pour some oil into your clean hand, then rub it on your meat. Stop that snickering. Not too much. Just a sheen. We want Elizabeth Taylor, emerging from the ocean in the moonlight. OK: Scarlett Johansson. Now the salt and pepper. Sea salt. Crystals big as tears. Black pepper, fresh ground, the precious spice 3,000 miles from home to find its destiny here. Use plenty of salt and more pepper, my son. Use more than you dare. We want a lovely crust.
And now the skillet is ready, hot enough to peel the skin from you at a touch. Hot enough to require the use of the BIG oven mitt. But don't hesitate. Pull it from the oven like a sword from a stone, unafraid and kingly. Drop it onto a roaring burner. Now, marry steak to hot pan. The lovely hiss as flesh meets iron. The crackle. The smoke. Go fan the smoke detector with a rag. On second thought, take out the battery. Get the tongs ready. The big ones. Two minutes. No more, no less. Two minutes only. The longest two minutes of your life. Flip! More sizzle. More smoke. See the sweet brown crust? See the shining juices? Two minutes more on this side. No more, no less.
Flip again. Now: into the oven, still in the pan. This part is more art than science, but two minutes each side is ballpark for a thick steak at medium rare. Keep the door shut, tongs and mitt at the ready. Consider the universe. Give thanks for the cow. Ding. Open the door. Flip. Drop on a single, perfect pat of butter. Back in the oven. Close the door. Two more minutes. Consider your place in the universe. Consider the rain becoming grass, the grass becoming cow, the cow becoming meat for the sustenance of our bodies, our bodies becoming the grass again. Amen. Drink from a beer, quickly. Ding.
Take the pan out of the oven. Check with a thermometer if you worry about microbes and such. Meat, meet plate. Pre-warmed plate. Preferably a plate from a sunken steamship, dredged up from the bottom of the ocean. Cover with a blanket of foil. Let your steak rest — as the Lord rested — for five minutes. Consider the dust. Gather ye knife and fork. Gather ye napkin and steak sauce, though The Old Man prefers none.
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