You have to give my grandmother an A for effort. Starting in the 1950s, she had raised six kids, and for the next three decades, she was still toiling away in the kitchen for hungry children.
Her labors of love at the stove were a never-ending raw deal. At least two of her kids still lived under her roof at all times, well into their adulthood. Then, as the first grandchild, I became the apple of her eye, and always welcome for a meal.
Despite her keenly honed motherly instincts, cooking was not her strong suit. Bland, boxed pasta was a frequent go-to despite her Irish heritage, and the fanciest we got was the not-very-multicultural New England specialty of American Chop Suey.
The steaks procured for a large working family weren’t of the finest quality to begin with, but the way she prepared them didn’t help. Salt always got an evil eye in a home where heart problems had already taken my grandfather (yet butter always seemed in abundance), so seasoning was limited to a bath of red wine vinegar salad dressing, served with liberal amounts of A.1. Sauce.
Her preferred appliance was the broiler, and while her exact instructions have been lost to time, a good 10 minutes on each side seemed to get the job done. After cooking out the last bits of flavor, she’d serve us the fully grayed pieces of meat.
The working class gets through daily life with hard work and is only rewarded with extravagant moments through pure luck. When I was 11, my father found one of those moments in the form of a $100 winning scratch ticket, and used the winnings to treat the two of us to a steak dinner on a Sunday.
We drove north out of Boston, up Route 1, to the Hilltop Steakhouse. The Hilltop passed as a “fancy place” to us, somewhere you might go for someone’s 65th birthday or graduation from high school, certainly not just an every day meal. My old man drove us there with pride, high on the feeling of a father being able to take his son out for a good steak. I didn’t want to order one, but I knew it was how he envisioned the meal. Not wanting to disappoint him, I took a guess on the menu, and ordered something called prime rib. When the waiter asked how I wanted it cooked, I responded in the only way I had ever known: well-done.
My father stopped the waiter before the mistake was set in stone, and challenged my order. “You don’t want it well,” he said. “Have you ever just had it medium-rare?”
I wasn’t even sure what medium-rare meant, beyond that it wasn’t very cooked. “Won’t it be gross? That’s not how Grammy makes steak.”
“Your grandmother, god-love-her, doesn’t know how to cook a fuckin’ steak,” he replied, and turned to the waiter. “Medium-rare.”
I put aside my fears of the pinkness in color, and found something that melted in my mouth and delighted my taste buds. While I had dined on many a hockey puck in my grandmother’s wood-paneled kitchen, this was the first time I truly ate steak.
I don’t think prime rib is on the top five cuts of steak I’d order today, but that Sunday, a new world was opened to me, thanks to my old man hitting a hundred on a scratcher. My grandmother’s shortcomings were few, mostly just her life-long smoking habit, and passing down a taste for overcooked meat that some family members still swear by. I think fondly of her when I see someone making the mistake of ordering a piece of well-done meat, but I’ve never ordered it that way since.