Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Medium Rare

Tonight - let's talk steak. We went to dinner with friends last Friday night at one of Madison's dining establishments. Now - notice my careful choice of words. I did not say 'fine' dining establishments, because there are no fine dining establishments in Madison. There are places to buy food you don't have to cook yourself. And there's are a couple of places for a pretty good breakfast. In fact I originally wanted to start this blog as a restaurant critic for Madison. Let's face it - when one of the listings in the 'Dining Guide to Madison' includes the convenience store at the gas station on the corner of the highway, you must know that the definition of dining is stretched pretty thin.

But I digress.

So last Friday we're out with friends and Lynn orders a rib eye medium rare. She said this with a certain authority that affirmed to me 'this is a woman who knows her steak.' Then she asked "Is this steak dry aged?" I'm in awe .... in the presence of a beef connoisseur.

I admire beef connoisseurs. Actually for me - well, I've never been a big fan of steak - T-bone, rib eye, or otherwise. I guess because growing up the best our family could afford was a big thick burger or a steak sandwich. I almost hesitate to say 'steak sandwich' because you probably think growing up in New Jersey we had Philly steak sandwiches. Although where I grew up was not far from Philadelphia - the steak sandwiches I know and love bear no resemblance whatsoever to what people are passing off as Philly steaks these days. This is as true in South Dakota as it was when I lived in Ohio, West Virginia, or Maryland. But the Philly steak is a topic for a future blog post.

Back to Friday night. The rest of our orders - 2 reubens and a chicken Parmesan were placed without further interrogation.
The steak comes. To my eyes, it didn't look so good. Like I said, I am not a fan of eating steak, but I had an illustrious early career as a short order cook (Union 76 Truck Stop Bloomsbury,NJ; Village Inn Pancake House Lawrence, Kansas) so I've cooked a lot of steak. I knew that skinny pathetic piece of beef on that plate was not medium rare.

And so did Lynn. She didn't take the plate when the waitress passed it to her. "That is not medium rare. I can't eat that." The waitress went speechless, dropped her eyes to the plate looked helpless. Clearly, this was new territory. I don't think anyone had ever challenged her before. This is after all South Dakota and while people know good steak, they are also very nice and averse to making a scene or being in anyway confrontational. Lynn did not make a scene and she was not confrontational. But she was very positive and very clear, "I cannot eat this steak. I can talk to the cook if you want me to."

Waitress: "Uhh-hhhh."

Lynn: "Really, I cannot eat this. I'll go back to the kitchen and talk to the cook."

This was a savvy move on Lynn's part because as a short order cook I had been on the receiving end many time for waitress wrath, occasionally deserved but more often as a convenient scapegoat for a lousy tip. Of course - there was the time the hostess came back and told me as tactfully as possible that an eight year old girl had choked on the plastic wrapping I failed to take off a slice of ham that went out in a ham sandwich. The girl's father was quite upset. Oh - did I mention the girl's father was my piano professor? And that my end of semester piano jury was the following day? Yep - that was a memorable kitchen gaff.

But I digress again. So the waitress retreated with the pathetic beef back to the kitchen. Lynn ate her potato. The rest of us dined on mediocrity and when a new plate of beef arrived, there was a regal rib eye worthy of a discerning steak eater. Thick juicy. Great grill aroma. And Lynn declared it quite good. She then proceeded to instruct the waitress in techniques for determining the doneness of a good steak. Even with my experience I was captivated by the lesson. Which only made sense because Lynn was a natural science teacher. She was in her element -a plate of beef, a young girl, and a lesson learned.

I wish I had been friends with Lynn when I worked at the truck stop. I could have used her particular expertise in medium rare. We served a lot steaks especially on the midnight shift. Steaks and eggs were a special for the long haulers although for the most part I don't think they were awake enough to know what was even on the plate. We also served a lot of burgers. Don't have any illusions about those. They were pre-formed, pre-frozen barely a quarter-inch thick. But there was one older couple that came in everyday for lunch Monday through Friday and placed placed their order with the same air of dicserning taste and authority: two hamburgers - medium rare.
The bottom line: People just know what they want and we need to respect that.


  1. Alas, I am a beef barbarian -- I like steak dark and burgers crispy. But I too have had to send meat back to the kitchen with stern reiteration that it be prepared the way I ordered it. Kudos to Lynn for being more constructive and non-confrontational than I in such consumer situations.

  2. You should blog as a restaurant critic for Madison once or twice a month. I like to eat, we could do together. I would be interested in your comments and conversations.