Red Meat Dad
Putting Lessons From Dad to Work On The Grill This Father's Day
I used to have a job slinging hash near a local supermarket. The employees who worked there frequently came into the carry-out place where I worked to bitch about how busy they were, and the crowded parking lot always backed up their claims. The major holidays like Christmas and the Fourth of July were foreshadowed by an absence of parking spaces, but I was surprised when I noticed a swell of traffic into the lot on the Friday before Father's Day.
"Next to the Fourth, it's our busiest weekend of the summer," one of the store's managers explained to me the next day. "By tonight our meat counter will be wiped out, especially the steaks. Delmonico, T-bone, you name it, they'll be gone."
This was a revelation to me--not that Father's Day was such a boon for the butchers of America, but that so many people were throwing such expensive fillets on the fire. Having grown up in a house where budget-stretching meals were the norm, steaks were far too risky, and too costly, fare to cook over an unpredictable open flame. My dad didn't teach me how to finesse a slab of beef to the proper doneness of rare, medium, or well. Instead, he taught me something far more difficult to master. He taught me how to use what was available--read here: what we could afford--to make the best meal possible.
I learned how to grill more humble cuts of meat, as well as poultry and vegetables. While we had steaks occasionally, they were too expensive to double as cooking demonstrations, so Dad helmed those on his own. I did learn how to cook venison steaks on the grill, but only because the number of hunting licenses and recession-ready freezers in my hometown of Beaverdale, Pa., made them easy to come by. Since most of the families in our neighborhood were in the same economic lot, the bounty of one's garden, or of one's hunting efforts, was shared equally.
The time-honored tradition of the suburban man presiding over his grill goes back to the economic optimism that followed WWII, and to all of the patio Daddy-O's who tossed around steaks like they were horseshoes. Recognizing Father's Day as a national holiday is more recent, owing to President Lyndon B. Johnson's proclamation in 1966 that the third Sunday in June would be its official observance. (Though, Google will tell you that it had its first observance in 1910.)
My own history, and hesitance, of grilling steaks can be traced back to my childhood. But rather than view the economic necessities that shaped my grilling skills as a detriment, I see them as circumstances that helped my culinary approach become more varied and adventurous. Over the years I followed my dad's example, and through many charred trials and errors, I've become aware that practically anything can be cooked on the grill. And now, with current economic conditions sending food prices higher, his tutelage during the recession of the '70s taught me how to put an impressive spread on the table and still have enough cash left over to buy the bigger bottle of bourbon. For the BBQ sauce, of course.
There are plenty of tasty and affordable ways to serve your dad something hot off the grill this Father's Day. Averaging about 75 cents a pound, chicken thighs can take the heat and remain moist while delivering a lot of flavor. For a few cents more, or less depending on your grocery store, you can get even more barbecue for your buck if you're willing to try grilling turkey thighs. Turkey thighs are also easier to work with than their smaller poultry counterparts. Trying to rub a spice blend into chicken thighs can get frustrating, fast. If the idea of cooking anything other than the breast seems too lowbrow, consider that master--and Iron--chef Mario Batali routinely has recipes for thighs in his cookbooks.
Even if you're looking to keep everything neat and tidy--in other words, on a bun--lean ground turkey holds up on the grill as long as you supply the extra moisture to prevent it from drying out. Toss the ground meat with chopped shallots or scallions and add a healthy pour of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup, prepared mustard, almost anything you like. For those who can't bear the thought of serving anything but beef on the grill come Father's Day, there are economically viable alternatives to the more costly cuts: Batali's contemporary Bobby Flay offers several ways to prepare the humble flank steak.
Of course, environmental concern is as much of an issue now as economic resourcefulness. I appreciate that there are those whose conscience informs their grilling choices more than their wallets. With every new report on the climate's health the simple act of changing a light bulb doesn't seem as noble of an effort as eschewing beef, or animal products altogether. I haven't yet taken my tongs to flipping seitan patties on the grill, but I know that when the time comes, I'll be prepared for the challenge. And I'll have my dad to thank.
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