Things That Endure

Jerry was a salesman of the old school, straight out of an episode of Mad Men. He was dapper as could be, with creases on his pants that would have cut you, and I never saw him without at least a sports coat, even that time I met him and a client at a ball game.

Jerry was my mentor when I was in financial sales, and he took my somewhat more casual approach to my appearance as a personal challenge. He also tried to teach me the finer points of the business lunch.

Jerry was a big one for lunch. We always lunched together on Fridays and always at one of several restaurants at least as old-school as Jerry himself was. They all had bars, tended to be dark paneled, and had pretty waitresses and generous bartenders. And, without exception, the food was always good.

I remarked on this once when we went to a somewhat shady-looking oyster bar whose dated decor did not fill me with high hopes going in.

“Of course the food is good! I’ve been coming here for 30 years. That doesn’t happen if the food is crap. You have to respect things that endure.”

One of Jerry’s favorite places was Mr. B’s. It was a steak and seafood house in Germantown, an affluent suburb of Memphis. The walls were raw brick, with a small bar along the wall, and the steaks were huge, and so were the cocktails.

Mr. B’s made their reputation on supper but had a strong lunchtime crowd, and being early in my career, my budget leaned more to the blue plate special than it did the porterhouse steaks. And one of the things they did really well was their country-fried steaks.

At least, that is what they called it. If you are used to a large piece of meat deep fried until crispy and then covered in milk gravy such as one may eat at a Cracker Barrel, this was not that.

Instead, it was a tender piece of beef, obviously pounded thin, then fried in a thin batter, and then cooked in a thick brown gravy until it practically fell apart. It was my favorite thing on the menu.

When I was a little boy, the elderly lady next door made something she called steak and gravy that my mom tried and tried to replicate but could not. This was very close to that.

We don’t eat a lot of beef – mostly because of the cost. But also, because we didn’t eat much of it growing up, it just isn’t something I crave. But the other day, the meat department at Kroger had their cubed steaks on clearance, and so I decided to whip up a batch of steak and gravy for dinner one night.

I got home from my last meeting today at 4, so I decided to make today the day it happened. I got out the deep skillet and put four tablespoons of shortening in it to melt and turned the oven on to 350 to preheat.

While waiting, I put a half cup of flour in a shallow bowl and added a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I stirred it well.

After dredging the cubed steaks through the flour mixture, I put them in the skillet to brown – about two minutes a side until the flour had formed a crisp crust, but the interiors were still not finished. I did them in batches, putting them on a cooling rack as they finished.

In the melted shortening still in the bottom of the pan, I sauteed a small amount (maybe 1 /4 cup?) of diced onion until brown, then added a few tablespoons of the flour dredge that was left over. After it was all browned, I added enough milk to make a thin gravy, into which I slid the breaded steaks. I put a lid on the skillet and slid it into the oven, where it sat and bubbled away for an hour and a half.

When I pulled it out, the gravy had separated – a danger of using milk gravy for something like this. I removed the steaks, put the skillet on the stove again, added a bit of half-and-half, and whisked quickly until the gravy was thinned out and reconstituted. I slid the steaks back in and let them simmer over low heat as I set the table.

Had I served it with mashed potatoes and English peas, this would have been my favorite meal of my childhood. But instead, we served it over white rice, making it my favorite meal today and still damn good.

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