Monday, March 9, 2020

I Chose the "Ch****oast"

When I was thirteen or so my parents went out of town for the weekend. My then seventeen-year-old, senior in high school brother was tasked with looking after me, so, yeah, I went unsupervised. 

It was fall and he had a football game Friday night which I had attended and got a ride home afterward with friends. He was supposed to get me home. I didn’t see him again until late Saturday morning when he left and told me he’d see me whenever.

I, correctly, took that to mean the next day.

When Mom left, she said we could have anything in the freezer, meaning TV dinners, which were very popular in those days. She, however, did not say specifically which freezer she meant. You see, there was also a big chest freezer in the basement full of frozen bread and vegetables, ice cream, curiously, milk and… meat.

I liked meat, a lot, then and still do. For some people it’s sweets, some like salty, some like fruits and vegetables, others can’t do without starch. I think folks are predisposed, like, biologically, to run on different fuels. I run on meat.  Also, I am not a scientist.

So, here was the plan. I’d get some meat from the freezer and I’d grill it for my lunch. As I opened the lid that cold air rushed me and I swore I heard a little choral “hallelujah” as I looked down on all those white butcher packs full of meat, each marked - many smeared - with a grease pencil as to their content. Now, I was not so stupid as to take a “T-bone” or a “Strip,” Dad would not have liked that. There were plenty marked “Hambuger”(sic) but that’s not what I wanted. As I dug, I found “Round Steak,” a possibility, a giant “Roast” and, towards the very bottom, a “Ch*** *oast.” It was not too thick, a good size and has clearly been down there on the bottom for quite a while and would probably not be missed.

So, I chose the “Choast.”

Now, I have held in my hands a piece of marble that was less hard than this chunk of meat. In fact, I had to run it under hot water to get the paper off it was so thoroughly frozen to the surface of the meat. This, for reasons that I can’t quite grasp today, did not deter me, nor did the white freezer-burn around the edges. I chucked it onto a cookie sheet and went to start the Weber.

I’d watched my Dad start the grill many times, we had hamburgers most Saturday nights, and I knew how to get it started. 
He used a nifty chimney thing that you stuffed with newspaper at the bottom and filled the larger top part with the Kingsford and lit. In ten or so minutes the coals were going and you could dump them out and put the grill grate on. I accomplished this with little difficulties. The difficulties were yet to come…

Salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder, just as Dad did with the burgers. The grill was hot, and I slid that meat from the sheet pan and on to that very hot grill with a mighty sizzle and a soft sorta “clunck” and looked forward to my steak in fifteen or twenty minutes, figuring it was just a big sirloin.

I gave it a few minutes and went to flip it with the big fork that dangled from the Weber. Needless to say, that meat was simply impenetrable. I gave up on the fork and grabbed the tongs that were next to them. The tongs were woefully under-designed for a two-and-a-half-pound hunk-o-beef and I quickly abandoned them.

All that was left on the utensil hanger was the burger spatula that had a surface area about a thirty-secondth of the meat. I managed to get it under but kept getting it off balance and had to steady it with the tongs, but I did manage to get it flipped.

Nothing. It had grayed a bit and there were a few marks from the grate, but it didn’t look like any hamburger or steak I’d ever had. I gave the other side maybe ten minutes, performed the flip maneuver with a little more alacrity and again… nothing. Yeah, it was a little darker than the first side, a little less gray edging toward brown but, well, not right.

Young men are not quick to either see nor admit to the folly of their ways - that comes with time and experience - but, I think I began to see that I needed a better plan. Thankfully, it occurred to me that I needed to thaw the beef. Perhaps this was not the best time for this realization, especially since I knew meat needed to be thawed. My mom often left a pound of hamburger out to thaw in the morning for dinner later. I am still unclear why this occurred to me so late in the game that day, but, there it is.

However, when it did occur to me, it all occurred to me. 
Something changed. It was clear that a biological timer had gone off or, deeper perhaps, a genetic switch was tripped, and I saw unmistakably the battle I was into, my first, my trial by fire. The combination of the heat and smoke of the Kingsford, the aroma of the sear, and the Flintstone-like look of that slab stirred up in me a primitive and urgent lust for that piece of meat and conjured in my mind great heroism. I felt, perhaps, as an apprentice may feel as he enters a noble trade and knows that he will someday know the secrets that will make him wise.

I’ll do us all the honor of speeding up the narrative.

You know that technique where you push all the coals to one side and the other side no longer sears, we call it “indirect heat” these days? Yeah, I didn’t think of that. I did remove the meat and the grill, and I pushed all the coals to the sides, in a big circle. I added some more Kingsford on top of the graying ones and put the grate and the meat back on.

Yes, I’d encircled the Choast and begun my siege. 
I won’t dwell on the battle tactics I employed, but they did include an interesting technique to refuel my fire in which I slowly spun the grate and dropped individual briquettes through a small gap by the handles of the grate; an inspired Webelo moment that involved aluminum foil and an onion and a limp celery stalk and Pepsi; and a moment of sheer epiphany when I came to understand the air vent adjusters at the top and bottom.

So, a wrapped and wrestled, roasted and broasted, fiddled and fucked with that meat for a full four or more hours. So long, in fact, that I had to have lunch waiting on my lunch - Lebanon bologna and mustard, thanks for asking. Finally, I decided to remove it from the foil to see what I had.

It was gray…

However, as you might recall, I had been awakened to the Way of the Grill and I knew I needed to get some color on it. So, off the grill, remove the grate and pile all those coals, now just small glowing bits, but they made a nice pile in the center.

As I stacked them with the wearing-out tongs I knocked most of the ash off them and, well, I could have smelted on them. Grate back on and quickly it is hot, hot, hot.

I slid the meat down with a satisfying sizzle. The Pepsi had reduced along with the juices and was a bit syrupy and clung to the outside of the chunk. It quickly smelled of caramel and barbeque and earth and Ohio. 

I managed to flip it - it was starting to come apart a little - and when I did the angels sang. It was dark gold and brown and deep umber and there were perfect grill marks. It was Pinterest perfect decades before there was such a thing. I can see it right now…

I quickly seared up the other side and plated it on an chipped oval platter, a platter my mother still has to this day. It was then that I realized I didn’t have anything to go with it. 

I carried the finished product into the kitchen and decided to fry up some potatoes in bacon grease, a family favorite Nick makes these days. Now that took a while and, honestly, unbeknownst to me, gave that meat a chance to rest and cool a little.

Somewhere around six, I’d guess I sat down at the picnic table on the screened porch. Close enough to the Weber to feel the last of the heat from the coals which cut the evening chill nicely. Our porch was high on a hill and all around me the woods and fields in the distance glowed in that fall palette this part of the country utilizes so well. It was still and had been all day and the aroma from the hours-long grilling session hung sweetly in the high ceiling above me. Crickets and frogs were tuning up and birds tittered in the trees.

I looked down at the platter in front of me, this platter…

… and the rustic aroma of those golden, bacon-fried potatoes mingled with the faint tang of the burnt edges and the sweetness of that pop-caramelized chuck roast will forever hang in the smokehouse my memory.

It was not quite fork-tender, I had a steak knife and sliced an edge off and popped that in my mouth and, well, you know what... I’m gonna let you imagine how good it was. Everything I could say about it is because I know food these days, not so much then.

I know, now, what techniques I used and why things happened the way they did. I know the Maillard effect and about how sugar and salt work and all that.

But, back then, all I knew was that it was perfect, and I had never even intended it. I thought I was having steak but accidentally invented braised, grilled, glazed ch****oast.

And that, dear boys, is my bit of advice today: a lot of times life works out much differently than you expected. And - comically, I think - it is often through blunders and wrong turns and desperate chances and tomfoolery and hairbrainage and dumbfuckery that we find ourselves in wonderful, odd and unforgettable moments.

If there are axioms in life I think this might be one:

“You never know what’s coming or where you're going.”

I hope this finds you someday, boys.

And peace to those reading along now, or tomorrow or yesterday. It’s weird that when you write it’s like being in all tenses at the same time.

Thanks for stopping by.