Where I Was From.

I believe in second chances and the inevitable twentieth. I believe the proverbial inch has always been the mile. I believe in exhausting those chances and believe in finding reasons to renew them. I don’t believe in falling in love, but I believe in sticking it all out until you can’t stick it out no more.

You have to find a way to reinvent yourself and I have been reinvented over and over these last few months. I’ve been unemployed, a salesperson, and an administrative manager. I’ve been really shitty to myself, really shitty to others, and at times negligent of everything. Bills and housework, dogs and boyfriends. All my relationships kind of crumple when I don’t tend to them, they end up like flowers in the kitchen windowsill—swollen and hot, then brittle to the touch. But I’ve learned to brush the dust off my hands and work harder at the goals I have. And that is the Protestant work ethic. My reward will come from work, not by the grace of your God or mine, not by the outstretched hand of a friend or an acquaintance.

That work ethic has run deep and has presented itself in unlikely ways. It’s intravenous and liminal, static and electric. It’s down in my gut when I’m guilty of sitting on the couch too long and painstakingly obvious when I fall asleep with another To-Do list in the works. It will all make me a better person, every last drop of sweat. Every last missed opportunity. Every last night in and early mornings and missed vacation. It will all pay off, because you gain pride from the aceticism of owing someone else so much, too guilty to ever give yourself too much credit, buy yourself too many clothes, put a little back in your own bank account for that proverbial rainy day fund that disappears before that rain every dried up.

When everything is communal, you start to lay claims. And I thank whatever God that’s been bred into my consciousness that I can still hold onto that.   And I owe it to my roots, the kinds that haven’t taken hold. The kinds that are telephonic and casual, the kind I can pick up or ignore at will. The kind that still live in Pennsylvania, Indiana. North Carolina and West Virginia.   The kinds that inspired within me to be truthful of my intentions in this world and truthful to the person I’ve become.

My mother has arthritis at 43, deep in her clavicle. She said it came from working “hard jobs”. She’s been a janitor and a candy-maker, she worked in a deep-freeze at a Wal-Mart distribution center in eastern Kentucky once. She comes from a German stock; we’re all flat-boned and broad limbed. My dad never had to go to war, but he served our country just the same. My aunt has worked at the same factory for 15 years. My uncle drives trucks for a living and my sister makes coffee for truck drivers off an interstate near Maryland. They’re hard folk who eat hearty. They’re heavy folk who eat light in the summer until dusk and then they feed heavy. Meat and potatoes, biscuits and gravy. Dough fried in reserved bacon grease, informal dinners around the TV.

All this I recognized from my trip to North Carolina, all this I recognized in myself. And I can’t deny it any longer how my Midwestern values took root somewhere in my soul, and I can’t deny the satisfaction of having people like me exist in different circumstances that I could never see myself in. When everything is communal, I lay claims to my family and my pride in being from the salt of the earth.

And, in doing so, I have become so inspired by the every day. The roadside produce stands and the chainlink fence. The rope-tied dog that howls at the open moon and the crawdads you never knew could be eaten. The marriage of eating-this-because-we-have-a-coupon and eating-this-because-my-mother-made-it-this-way. Seeing beauty in that. Or how there are town-wide parades to celebrate the anniversary of my uncle who died in Afghanistan. Seeing beauty in the years of the hardworking middle-class that gave me my bone structure and reaping the benefits of those farmers and military men to move to California and willingly quit law school to find myself the hard way and know what it’s like to be really, truly poor for the first time ever and learning to cook because of necessity and not as a hobby.

The Protestant work ethic. The marriage of Southern tradition and Midwestern values. The sense of accomplishment at not losing my mind and finding a place in my family in June. It was all so holy to me. I didn’t know it was going to mean so much to me, but it was a pilgrimage, a Hajj, a Junrei of self-acceptance vis a vis familial acceptance. Where I was from, where I am going. Who I am. These are no longer existential cries of understanding, they are part of my here and now.

And in celebration of that knowledge, I cooked. I cooked with love, with honor and tradition. With understanding that these would be hearty ingredients, that the cast iron was necessary and not accessory. That the fatty dairy would have been pure, like how my grandmother Ruth would have made it straight from the cow (how maybe I would have, too, if my grandfather hadn’t sold the farm in the 70’s). I made this meal to honor every composite of myself. And it’s simple: meat, potatoes, and pie.

Steak and Buttermilk-Herbed Potatoes

This is a casual meal, thrown together without discretion for any kind of culinary know-how.  Love it for what it is, for where it came from.

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Ingredients:

        For the Steak:

  • 2 rib steaks, 6-10 oz
  • Olive oil
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • Garam masala
  • Paprika
  • Garlic salt
  • 2 TB Butter, softened

For the potatoes

  • 6-8 small to medium russet potatoes, sliced as thin as you can (do this before beginning cooking the meat.  If need be, place in cold water to keep)
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk
  • 4 TB butter, melted
  • 1 TS salt
  • 1 1/2 – 2 TB Herbs de provence
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Directions for Steak:

  1. Completely thaw steak until malleable and soft, completely sandwich between paper towels and pat dry
  2. Brush with olive oil and rub in softened butter (the butter will give flavor, the olive oil will help to sear) and set aside, making sure to not wipe off the butter and oil.
  3. Use two separate plates for the rub.  On the first, pour the spices.  I would say I used 1 1/2 TS – 1 TB per spice (be cognizant of the flavors, for obvious reasons.  I used less salt, but knew the steak–and my tastebuds–could hold up to a more seasoned and spicy meat with garam masala and cayenne pepper).  Combine with a fork.
  4. Place oiled and buttered meats into spice plate and rub completely around.  Place on reserved plate.
  5. Heat skillet (definitely prefer cast-iron here, but make sure you have some ventilation for it).  Use additional oil and butter until the pan starts to smoke a little to enhance the sear of the meat.
  6. Put meat on skillet and let it sizzle.  As a general rule, do not touch meat until it voluntarily allows itself to be pulled from the metal.  Let it sear and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Check readiness.  Flip for additional 3-5 minutes, depending on how done you like your meat.
  7. Reserve steak grease for use. Wrap in aluminum foil and let sit while you prepare the potatoes.

Directions for potatoes:

  1. Place potatoes in bowl (dry them off as much as possible so the herbs and butter can stick).
  2. Melt butter in small saucepan or microwave, pour over potatoes along with buttermilk
  3. Add salt, garlic, and herbs
  4. In the same skillet you cooked the steaks, add additional oil or butter and heat back up.  Does not have to smoke-to-sear here.
  5. Pour potatoes in and stir constantly until all edges are crisp and inside is softened.  Some will be burnt and blackened, some will be soft and baked.
  6. Allow to cool for a minute.  Plate with steak.  (Additionally, enjoy these with a little cheese while still hot, if desired).
  7. Enjoy!

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Buttermilk-lemon Pie

And finally, for you, I have a buttermilk-lemon pie that truly invoked my newfound love of the South.  So pretty, so simple.  So versatile.  And did I mention pretty?

Ingredients:

  • A good quality store-bought pie crust (okay, okay, I cheated here a little)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 TB raw organic sugar (not super-fine, but you want crystals) or brown sugar
  • 1 TS instant espresso

Directions:

  1. Prepare 9-inch pie crust per your own recipe or the package directions
  2. Mix all ingredients (save the organic sugar and espresso) until well-combined.  It will be pale yellow and delicious.  ((I mixed all of mine in a Pyrex liquid measuring cup for ease)
  3. Pour into prepared pie shell
  4. In a small bowl, mix organic sugar or brown sugar and espresso with a until well combined.  With a spoon, gently shake and pour sugar until covering pie.  Use more if not enough (I eyeballed)
  5. Bake for 45-50 minutes until cracking and caramelized on top.
  6. Allow to cool in fridge for about 30 minutes for best consistency for slicing and taste.

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2 responses to “Where I Was From.

  1. Thanks for sharing your grounded recipes, Brett. I come from hearty Irish stock where meat, potatoes and pie were omnipresent and much appreciated. Add some good turnip to the mix and I’m in gustatory heaven. I’m sure the meal nourished your stomach as well as your soul.

    Yet is was/is your writing that captivated. I take it you’re a fairly young guy, yet well beyond your years in your expressive abilities. Your word choice, sensory language, and depth of honesty is refreshing and admirable. Thanks for crafting and awakening us to a bit of your roots. Impressive.

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