I’m going to veer away from everything I’ve done thus far and write a bit of fiction today, something I haven’t done nearly enough for a long while. Not sure what it is, or if it’ll go any further than today, but, it’s worth a shot just to steer myself away from what’s currently on all of our minds. So, fiction it is. Pardon the randomness.
“You know what this is?” Joey’s father asked, running his finger along the thick layer of fat lining the edge of the raw steak. The meat was bathing in a bowl of grainy brown liquid in front of them.
“Fat,” said Joey, curling his lip. A crow clicked and rattled somewhere above their backyard patio.
“Flavor,” corrected his father, grinning. “Fat is flavor, Joey. “And that’s what makes this the best damn cut of steak you’ll ever eat. Don’t listen to those guys in the Tribune with their fillets and strip steaks. And their no-fat crap. The Ribeye is f****** King.”
“Paul!” scolded Joey’s mother through the screen of the kitchen window, “Language!” But if his father had heard her he didn’t show it, eyes cast over top of his glasses, engulfed in smoke from the bbq, sweat beading along his upper lip. Joey’s father didn’t curse often, and when he did, you could be sure it was in response to positive news. A new nephew on the way. “S***, that’s great news.” A friend’s job promotion. “Congrats, you old d***head!” The Cubs winning the pennant. “Holy S***! Didn’t think they had it in ‘em!” The rest of the time his father spoke with the kind of polished vocabulary and worldly views that didn’t befit a man who spent his days in a sweltering shop with guys who had barely finished high school.
The thick ribeye sat upon a small cutting board atop a rickety picnic table, gray and weathered, small vessels of seasonings and garden vegetables penning it in like a multi-colored fence. There was youth beyond the heavy wrinkles in Paul’s face, a toddler smile, a teenage spark to the eyes hidden behind thick bifocals and greasy hair that hung down past his cheekbones. These were often swallowed by the exhaustion of his work, hidden in the black, oily hands and broken fingernails that never seemed clean, muted by the weight in his chin that kept it low. But where work stifled the embers of his youth, food certainly nourished them, and Joey liked the spring in his father’s step, the awe with which he seemed to take in each ingredient when they cooked together.
“Taste this,” he said, punching a small sliver of raw garlic into his son’s palm. Joey frowned at it, used to these sorts of demands from his father during their lessons. There was always the need to taste, to interpret an ingredient’s raw profile before it softened, expanded and intensified, became part of the meal. A ritual greeting with each component. A prickle of chili powder on the pinky, the gritty gnash of rosemary leaves between the teeth. Joey popped it into his mouth after watching his father do the same, feeling the spicy sting of the garlic, coughing twice, waiting for the bite to subside. Paul chuckled and clapped him on the back. “Strong, huh? See, the flavor mellows when it’s cooked. Smell the Worcestershire. Here, a little cilantro.” Joey sampled and savored, trying to calm the harsh reaction of his taste buds, wiping his watery eyes. His father’s grilling tools were lined up like a surgeon’s, the metal gleaming, wooden handles worn down from years of sweaty palms and heavy rays of sunlight. They crunched slices of red bell peppers, sipped water between the samples at his father’s insistence. Cleanse your palate.
“You don’t need fancy to be fresh,” his father continued. “You don’t need fancy to be tasty.” He swished the marinade around in the bowl over the steak again. “C’mon, let’s get the grill ready.”
Like a great mouth, the old kettle let out a fiery breath when they removed the lid, the coals white and glowing, smoke with a hint of lighter fluid at the edges. He lifted one end of the grill grate, and began to spread the coals into a two-tier fire with an old knob of a tree branch.
“Grab that bowl of oil,” his father barked, as he replaced the grill grate and began to furiously scrape the grates clean with a wire brush. “Your turn to put it on this time,” he said. Joey grabbed the long tongs and bowl, oiling the grates with a soaking wad of paper towel. The fire rose angrily, singeing his fingers, but he fought back the pain with a grimace. When he’d returned the bowl to the table, Paul laughed, watching him inspect his reddened fingers. “Let me see those, he said, looking over his glasses at the little burnt hairs on the backs of his son’s fingers. “Ha!” he laughed. “Now, you’re a true grill hound,” he said, Joey smiling at his laugh. His father retrieved the bowl with the ribeye, the marinade sloshing. “You do the honors,” he said. “Remember, keep it on the sear side,” he instructed, referring to the higher side of coals. Joey grabbed the hunk of beef with two hands on the tongs, meeting his father’s eyes.
“Ready for the best sound in the whole world?” Paul asked.