Garlic and Sapphires- Ruth Reichl


Yet again, a non-fiction work, that has enthralled me. Entwined with her tales of being the restaurant critic for the New York times, Ruth Reichel recounts where her appreciation of food was born.  Her relationships with her family and the city where she was raised are reminiscent of my own.

If you subsitute the geographical location of Greenhich Village with the North End of Winnipeg, this excerpt could be written of my precious Daddy and me:

“But no matter which route we took, our journeys always ended at the narrow butcher shop on Jones Street, with its sawdust floor and its fine mineral aroma.  The cases were filled with bacon that they smoked themselves, pink and white strips spread out like gorgeous fabric, and a few pretty little lamb chops, red circles of meat clinging to an elegantly long bones and decorated with frilly paper caps.

“Good Morning Jimmy”, my father would say.

And Jimmy would look up and smile and seem delighted to see us.  He’d hand me a slice of salami, or some of the liverwurst he brought down from Yorkville, or sometimes the dried beef that he made when business was slow.  “Fine morning”, he’d say, even if it wasn’t.

“We need a Porterhouse, please”, my father would say.  And Jimmy would reply, “The finest steak there is!” as if the thought had occurred to him for the first time.  Then he would pull open the heavy wooden door, with its slab of a handle, and disappear into the cooler in the back.  When he reappeared he was carrying what looked to me like half a steer, although it was really just the short loins that had been hanging for a few weeks, acquiring a fine patina of age.

Picking up a hacksaw, he’d indicate a cut: “This much?”  And no matter how thick it was, my father always said, “A little thicker, please”.  And Jimmy would nod and cut off a substantial steak, humming as he worked.  When he was done he’d hold up the steak and point to the fine veins of white tracing a pattern through the dense red meat.  “Good marbling”, he said admiringly every week, as if the steak was a special star.  “All the flavours in the fat.  Cut off the fat, you cant tell the difference between beef, pork and lamb.  That’s a fact.  Did you know that?”

Then he’d thump the steak onto the chopping block and begin the ritual of trimming.  First he cut the thick blue-black layer of mold from the outside of the steak, scraping it until the bright red flesh beneath the crust had been revealed.  Then he’d carefully remove a few inches of fat from the edges so that only a creamy white fat remained.  Carefully folding in the little tail end, he’d lay the meat on a piece of pick paper and heave it onto the scale.

“You’re going to have a fine dinner”, he’d say, as if the compliment were to the cook and not the cutter.  “Don’t be afraid of the salt”.

“Thats the secret!” my father always replied, carefully tucking the parcel under his arm.  Waving cheerily, we’d walk out the door.

At home we had another ritual.  Three hours before it was time to eat, my father would jump up from his chair and say, “No point in cooking cold meat”. Together wed go into the kitchen, remove the porterhouse from the refrigerator, carefully unwrap the package, and set the steak on a platter lined with wax paper.  When it had thrown off the chill, Dad would salt it, releasing a small blizzard over the meat.  “The secret to a great steak”, he always said, “is that when you think you have enough salt, you add some more”. ” The other secret:”, he’d say as he got out the big cast iron skillet, “is to heat the pan until it s blazing hot and cook the meat exactly eight minutes on each side”.

“And the final secret”, I’d add, doing my bit, “is the butter”.  My job was to plunk a lump of sweet butter onto the sizzling steak just as my father set it on the platter.

My father carved the steak with long, precise strokes of the knife, carefully separating the sirloin that he and my brother preferred from the tenderloin that my mother favoured.  The bone was mine.

While they piled their plates like civilized people I’d bring the bone up to my face until the aroma-animal and mineral, dirt and rock-was flooding my senses.  Then I’d bite into the meat, soft and chewy at the same time, rolling it around in my mouth.  It was juicy, powerful, primal, and I’d take another bit and another.  The meat closest to the bone was smooth as satin, and sweet.  It tasted like nothing else on earth, and I would gnaw happily until the bone was stripped naked and my face was covered with a satisfying layer of grease.”

Ruth Reichl has other works on non-fiction on my “must-read” list but this was a very good place to start.


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