Sacrilege on the grill

Call it sacrilege, but the best steak I ever ate was at a California (I know, I know) steakhouse in late December 2003.

We flew to Orange County to watch Staci and the Wyoming Honor Band march in the 2004 Rose Bowl Parade a few days later. Sue and I did all the tourist activities you can do in Southern California. The beaches, Disneyland, Universal Studios, you get the drift. We were as in tune with life in the Inland Empire as the tourists rolling right through our little slice of heaven each summer on their quest to “experience” the “Real Wyoming” in Jackson Hole. Oh, well, we appreciate the money they spend here on their way to somewhere else just as the west coast businesses do when we travel west.

I don’t remember the name of the steakhouse, what suburb it was in, or even what street it was on, but I remember the steak. Strange how gastric memories can supersede others at times isn’t it? It was after dark, we were hungry after our 22-mile ferry ride from Long Beach to Catalina Island earlier that day and the red building with the yellow lights reading “Steakhouse” was all the advertising I needed to go inside. It was well worth the trip.

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You don’t think of T-bone steak when you travel to the Golden State, but there it was.

Years later, we went to Tillies in McKeesport, Pennsylvania with Staci and her husband Adam, and his parents Dave and Darlene. The rib steak they delivered that day was nearly the equal of that near Hollywood T-bone.

It was so good I asked the waitress to send out the cook. As I waited by the kitchen door, I caught a glimpse of three early 20-something cooks standing near the grilling station. I watched as she asked which one had grilled the ribeye. The kid was nervous, I guess growing up as a black youngster on the mean streets of McKeesport (and they are) made him suspicious of an older white guy wanting to speak with him.

As he hesitantly approached, I verified that he was indeed the chef, and handed him a twenty-dollar bill as a tip. “Best ribeye I ever ate,” I told him. The kid beamed with a wide grin, and I caught his buddies good-naturedly shoving him a bit as he told them about the tip.

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The message is that there is excellence all around us, and sometimes you find it in the most unlikely of places.

This isn’t a dig on the cuisine here at home, we still have some excellent steakhouses across Wyoming. In high school, the El Toro and Svilars battled for dining excellent just a few yards from each other in tiny Hudson. You still can’t beat a rib eye at the place Mama Svilar started so long ago.

My friend Jake makes a great steak at the Roasted Bean and Cuisine on Main in Riverton, as does the One Eyed Buffalo in Thermopolis. It’s what you’d expect to find in the wild west image of the Cowboy State.

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Not that I’m a connoisseur of high-quality beef, but I know something good when I find it. As a kid, we ate Holstein beef exclusively. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old that I had a steak from a traditional beef breed. There were a lot of dairies operating across Fremont County in those days and Holstein steers were cheap and plentiful. They made huge steaks as well. My only problem with steak as a kid was my dad’s disdain for even the slightest hint of pink in beef. We ate well-done steak, the kind that curled up from frying too much and required lots of ketchup just to eat.

To each his own, I guess. In later years I realized his wanting everything fried to a crisp came from his southern roots in Arkansas.

My mom still rails against my grandma Sally’s cooking, but I loved it.

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As a kid, the taste of the Great Depression was just a shotgun blast away from my grandpa’s 20-gauge.

He harvested squirrels, quail, raccoon, and an occasional deer, but the main item on the menu was pork. He had a large pen, always with a dozen or so Landrace hogs rolling in the mud or finding shade from the pecan, apple, and peach trees nearby.

Those hogs were the secret ingredient (ok, not so secret) of my grandma’s cooking. She put bacon grease in everything.

Collared greens were better when fried with just a bit or bacon grease before boiling. Her incredible cornbread came with a couple of good dollops of bacon fat as well. She didn’t use lard, since beef was a rarity in the days before refrigeration in the south, but smoked pork was plentiful.

I often accompanied my grandpa to his smokehouse which always had a few hams, shoulders, and pork bellies inside curing in the hickory smoke.

They were always salty, another vestige of living without refrigeration in the hot southern climate.

They had a refrigerator, the first appliance they purchased after electricity arrived in the early 1950s, but the hole in the ground they previously used for cold storage was still in the backyard.

It fascinated me as an eight-year-old kid.

The hole was about four feet deep, maybe three feet in diameter and had notches for boards at six-inch increments. Grandpa showed me how it worked one day.

You filled it a foot or so with water and put eggs and other perishable items near the bottom. The top was made of wood filled with straw, and it set tightly as a lid. The coolness of the ground kept the temperature near the bottom at around 40 degrees since heat rises. That was the entire system.

If and when our present energy grid fails, people will soon return to these simple measures in food preparation.

They also had a root cellar filled with spiders. Inside were walls of quart jars of tomatoes, corn, beans, carrots, okra, and other vegetables. I often ran down the short steps to retrieve a jar for grandma.

It was a different era, but I am thankful I was able to experience just a taste (yes, pun intended) of it, while still living in a world where modern appliances have made existence so much easier.

It’s said that the Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table and anything that flies except an airplane, that’s equally true with the Greatest Generation in the American South.

The catfish, bream, crappie, and bass my grandparents caught were the best fish you could ever eat. The hushpuppies, made with green onion, corn meal, and a good portion of bacon grease were manna from heaven.

This trip down the gastronomic memory lane is both a tribute and a warning.

It’s a tribute to the regional differences that make this the greatest nation on earth. It’s a warning that these differences are quickly disappearing with the mundane sameness of corporate menus at chain restaurants.

You never know where you’ll find a good steak unless you’re willing to look.

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