Christmas Beef: A Delicacy for Only Me
Growing up, I never saw my mother let a bite of barley pass her lips. She grew up poor in post–World War II Japan, when polished white rice was scarce and therefore expensive, so barley was often served in its place. It wasn’t the taste so much as the texture that put her off, that reminded her of her once-miserable existence—the ratty clothes, the run-down house, the hopeless prospects for a bookish girl in a sleepy seaside town in a culture she believed devalued women. “Never again,” she once said when I asked her about her aversion to barley, and she might as well have been talking about those clothes, that house, being poor, or living in Japan, feeling imprisoned by circumstances beyond her control.
Scarcity has a way of stamping its mark on your life. My mother’s dislike of barley was akin to the aversion Depression-era children in this country have to waste of any kind, particularly of luxuries, like pretty paper used for wrapping presents. It doesn’t have to be a scarcity borne of privation, either; my father, whose family lacked for nothing except good taste, has spent a lifetime trying to make up for the insipid food he was served as a kid. I suspect that each and every one of us can trace some quirk or predilection or preference in the present to some absence in the past. For my part, I have a periodic need to eat rare or near-raw beef, which I can easily attribute to the fact that I lived in India for 14 years.
From 1986 to 2001, beef was our family’s number one luxury, served only on the rarest of occasions, at the most special of meals, which, despite the fact that we weren’t especially religious, included Christmas dinner. Foie gras and caviar couldn’t even come close; it was possible to buy either if we had the money or the inclination,* but beef was entirely unavailable from butchers and grocery stores in New Delhi, because cows are considered sacred by the country’s Hindu majority.
Raw pork was unavailable, too, although I’m not entirely sure why, but it never really rated quite as high on my list of coveted foods. I have no doubt that part of our reverence for beef was due to the fact that while the meat was unavailable, cows were everywhere; small herds of cattle walked the city streets by day, often gumming up traffic, and bedded down in parks at night, making all of us feel a little bit like castaways dying of thirst.
* Fun fact: After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the Indian black market was flooded with good caviar and high-quality cigarettes, which my parents snapped up for very, very cheap. When I moved to America when I was 18, I’d eaten more good caviar in my life than I had porterhouse steaks.
While beef was inaccessible to us, many other expatriates could get their hands on it—those who, through some affiliation with the various diplomatic missions in the city, had gained the privilege of shopping at the missions’ commissaries. This led to some moments of envy that seem odd in retrospect. I clearly remember spending days yearning for the Rice-a-Roni that I’d had at some American kid’s sleepover, solely because it’d had a fair amount of hamburger meat, and turning my nose up at some pilaf my mom had made to shut me up.
I felt the daily lack of beef all the more keenly, I think, because of the way my parents sought out and devoured it whenever we went abroad. In the United States, it was rare roast beef sandwiches, the beef sliced thin and topped with salt, pepper, mayo, and red onions—as a kid, I was astonished that this delicacy was available almost anywhere in the country. In Hong Kong, it was bowls of pho, with rounds of raw beef shingled on top. In Japan, when visiting my grandparents, we’d request shabu shabu as one of our first meals, and upon our arrival we’d be presented with platters of thin slices of beautiful beef, folded and layered in such a way as to seem an offering, the marbling so complete it looked like the meat had trapped lightning.
This kind of behavior can give you a reputation. To this day, all of my relatives believe I crave beef at all times, even though I have lived in the US for close to 20 years and am able to eat it whenever I like, and do, quite often.
One of the last times I saw my Japanese grandfather, I was visiting alone. When we sat down to dinner, my grandmother proudly set down a thin ribeye steak in front of me, barely browned on its exterior, raw on the inside. “You all always wanted to eat beef when you came,” she said to me, even as she acknowledged that cooking beef, particularly steaks, wasn’t her forte. I ate it happily—though it was a bit more on this side of moo than what the French might call bleu—but did forgo some of the gristlier bits, which my grandfather, a product of his times as much as my mother was of hers, didn’t hesitate to pop in his mouth and gum until they’d given up their flavor.
A reputation is rarely unearned. Just the other day, my brother and I were reminiscing fondly—rapturously, if I’m being perfectly honest—about a tenderloin my uncle cooked one Christmas. Tenderloin has always been my father’s family’s traditional Christmas roast, and my uncle, who has a way with the grill, managed to achieve an appealing and totally complete char on the meat’s exterior, even though the interior temperature can’t have topped 110°F. I don’t know that the rest of my family appreciated that meal, but my brother and I, the sole representatives of the family branch who had beef issues, couldn’t stop going back for more helpings of that filet, the near-black crust ringing little rounds of meat the color of a bruise.
That’s another of the habits scarcity brings into being: The moment that you’re presented with whatever it is that you’ve been denied, your instinct is to gorge yourself beyond reason, to take in as much as you can, while you can. One summer my mother and I got stuck in an airport hotel in Bangkok, and while I can’t remember why we were there, I do remember we ordered a Thai beef salad from room service, even though we weren’t particularly hungry. I must have been quite young, since I was fiddling with a Game Boy when the salad arrived. When I finally looked up, my mother had already taken a bite. Her face was lit with what I can only describe as joyful determination, and she said, “It’s good. Let’s order another.”
And we did, enjoying every last bite of what I think was sirloin, cooked rare over charcoal, dressed with cilantro, lime, fish sauce, red onion, possibly mint, and an abundance of fresh red Thai chilies. When we got the call that told us our flight had been delayed another couple hours, we ordered a third.
Since we couldn’t buy beef in India, our only recourse was to bring it in ourselves, and so we did, every time we returned to the country. Right before we got on the plane, my parents would buy whole, frozen, untrimmed, vacuum-sealed muscles—tenderloins, flanks, strip loins—and we’d pack them in a suitcase that we’d brought along specifically for the purpose, which would then be checked in under the name of either me or my brother, a half-baked attempt to allay suspicion or mitigate whatever punishment we’d deserve from the customs authorities. As we got off the plane, we’d all be afflicted by the same anxieties over the beef in the checked bag: Had it defrosted too much? (Yes, invariably.) Would the bag have been flagged? (Yes, invariably.) Would we be able to get it out of the airport without paying for it, or having to throw it out?
At the baggage carousel, we’d pick up the suitcase, which, more often than not, would exude pink liquid in steady drips, and would have chalk scribbled all over it by the baggage handlers because of said mysterious pink liquid, and we’d place it on the bottom of one of those luggage carts, buried underneath all our other bags. As we walked past the customs officers, down the lane for those with nothing to declare, my brother and I were tasked with keeping pace with the meat-case on either side of the cart, to obscure any telltale chalk marks that might alert the authorities.
One of the benefits of having to buy beef in this way was that, from a very young age, I was able to watch as my father cleaned up the untrimmed muscles, a task he would’ve been entirely unqualified for were it not for the fact that we owned the first volume of Jacques Pépin’s The Art of Cooking. Aside from being one of the most beautiful cookbooks ever published, it shows in clear step-by-step photographs every bit of butchery a cook could ever need, including how to skin a lamb. I’d watch, rapt, as my father used a not-very-sharp knife to cut away the sinew and fat, gradually revealing, like a little meat David, the blue-red beef buried underneath.
My parents weren’t the fanciest cooks, so our Christmas meal was pretty straightforward, even if it felt very luxurious. It was the one meal for which we’d use an actual tablecloth, so white it was begging to be stained, and we’d set out the silver cutlery that was otherwise used only at Thanksgiving. We were all terrified that the tenderloin, so dearly purchased, would be cooked past rare, so we had an unspoken agreement that underdone was just as good as properly cooked. The beef was accompanied by nothing more than some sautéed mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and a Caesar-ish salad.
For a number of reasons, my wife and I typically spend Christmas Eve alone together, and we have adopted my family’s Christmas dinner tradition as our own, with a few small changes. Of course, I don’t have to cart frozen beef across national borders, and I don’t have to do any trimming of whole muscles, and the two of us require only two generously sized filet mignons.
But everything else is the same: the mushrooms, the potatoes, the approximation of a Caesar (no egg, no croutons, but a bracing amount of anchovy in the dressing). While I cook my wife’s filet to a perfect medium-rare using the reverse sear, I tend to cook mine on the stovetop, butter-basting over a medium flame. Not just because I want to cook my steak to a different temperature, but because I like the exterior to be a bit more well-done, and the interior to be a bit rarer, so that at its very center it’s a little raw. It feels appropriate for a holiday spent, for reasons both practical and irrevocable, away from my family. Which is to say: It’s a little blue, but not very.
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