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My mother claimed to have no interest in food. She said she'd be happy just swallowing a nutrition pill to survive.
But her passion for beef belied her hatred of all things food. When my father was away—which was often—we'd frequent a place called Mr. Steak for lunch. To this day, I love all restaurants with the name "Mister" in the title.
Mr. Steak served steaks and hamburgers with little toothpicks stuck in the meat that said "medium rare" or "rare," depending on how you ordered your slab of protein. I loved the little signs better than the beef itself—to the meat, I was largely indifferent. When I wanted to order my chopped sirloin "well done" just to see what the label looked like, my mother said "No, TRUST ME you don't want it THAT WAY," in the same voice that she said filet mignon was "an expensive cut of beef for people who don't really like beef—meat should be served on the bone." How could something well-done be bad? I was confused.
For Americans born on the cusp of World War II like my mother, being able to afford beef was a sign of prosperity. Money was tight for her family when she was growing up. Her parents were divorced. My mother went to work at 16, not to add to her college fund or to buy a new car, but to help support my grandmother and her younger sister and brother. Steak was such a rarity my mother could still recall, many years later, a truly tragic food memory.
My grandmother and her three young adult children had scrimped and saved to buy a roast beef for their payday Friday dinner that week. The beef was proudly showcased on the table, like the Norman Rockwell print my mother's life never resembled. The family's epileptic, three-pound toy poodle Coco watched the preparations for the feast with great interest. Before the roast could be cut, Coco crouched down on her haunches—and threw her little body with all of its force on top of the table.
Gripping the beef in her needle-like teeth, Coco sped through the kitchen, dragging the carcass into the living room, where she consumed it in a protein-induced frenzy, generously leaving the rest of the family with some paw-print studded mashed potatoes and the canned green beans now strewn across the floor. Long before doggy daycare and organic pet food became mainstream, Coco knew that pets were "part of the family" and "deserved the best." Despite her epilepsy, she lived a long life.
The fact my mother remembered this story so well speaks to her love of red meat. Unfortunately, the only meat I'd eat was disguised meat—pepperoni circles on pizza, hot dogs, or McDonald's hamburgers. I loathed steak and only ate it under extreme duress: if chocolate was promised afterward. When we went to a marvelous local restaurant called What's Your Beef (steakhouses always have the best names) —which featured various cuts of meat ordered from a chalkboard menu by the ounce, an elaborate salad bar, and make-you-own sundaes—I didn't touch my prime rib and kept talking about how much I loved the spinach pasta salad and the frozen yogurt bar, because you could have as much chocolate sauce as you wanted without any whipped cream.
I think my mother cried a little bit inside. Sometimes dogs resemble their owners more than the owner's human children, I guess.
I haven't been there in years, but I've heard What's Your Beef still has a great salad bar. With the strange logic of accepting a parent's death, I wonder: "how is it possible that a restaurant called What's Your Beef can go on existing, but my mother cannot? Really, who else is worth serving?" But if my mother were alive today, we could go there together and I could eat at the salad bar, and she could order prime rib. She did teach me that love is always a compromise and that memory will never die.