I once knew a girl named Grace.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t really know her. I sat across from her in Mr. Lester’s fifth-grade class. She knew most of the math problems we figured out on the chalkboard. She had an odd, intermittent giggle, like helium escaping from a small balloon slowly. And when she did smile, which wasn’t often, she tilted her head to the side, as though it would slide off her face and disappear.
Mostly, though, I saw that she was different than the rest of the class. Her small beige face hidden by giant grandmother glasses, Grace wore handmade dresses, patchworked with crooked squares of paisley or polka dots. The hems dangled at odd angles, puckered from quick sewing. Her socks often bunched just above her chunky, sensible shoes, the elastic unraveling at her ankles. And often, she smelled faintly of pee, as though she had wet the bed in the middle of the night and ran out the door for school, disheveled and late.
Often, I felt different than the rest of the class as well. Bookish, with equally large glasses as Grace, but in then-fashionable soda-pop orange, I hid behind my books and watched everyone else. My progress report at the beginning of the year suggested that I try to read 25 books that year. The copy of the end-of-the-year report, in smudged mimeographed ink, reads “Shauna has read 178 books this year!” Most of the time during tests, kids on either side of me tried to crane their necks to look at my paper. I just curled my arm around the vocabulary quiz and scribbled furiously, annoyed that this was when they wanted to be my friend.
But I had bursts of assertive energy, like when I demanded that my fourth-grade teacher allow me to play softball with the boys during P.E., instead of skipping rope with the girls. (Jumping up and down on the same patch of grey cement, underneath the awnings outside the door of our classroom, seemed like infuriating monotony to me.) I clutched a few friends to my side, mostly the rest of the Math Olympiad team, or the girls who fought with me over who could sit in the yellow beanbag in the sunlit corner to read our Beezus and Ramona books. (I read Of Human Bondage that year, although I can’t claim I understood a word.) I wasn’t as alone as Grace.
Grace moved in her own small circle, skirting the edges of the classroom before leaving for the day. Once, my parents drove us down a considered-dangerous street in Pomona, and my mother pointed out a house. The lawn looked as though it had been bitten down and the tips burned by the sun. The house sat slumped, small and worn down at the edges. On the lawn, a giant, hand-painted wooden sign: “Tarot cards read here.” My mother said, “That’s where your friend Grace lives.” I peered at it, hard, trying to comprehend what it must be like to live there, with only a mother, with such an embarrassing sign emblazoning the front. I looked down as we drove away.
Until a few days ago, that’s how I felt about Salisbury steak, as well.
My only memory of Salisbury steak is a plump hunk of meat sitting in pale gravy, side by side in plastic with bright orange macaroni and cheese, both of them overheated and bubbling over the tray. My family and I sat eating, each of us with a metal tv tray, as we watched Happy Days, and then Laverne and Shirley. (The Chef and I can still sing the theme song to the last one, today.)
I didn’t sit there disdaining the meal. I loved tv dinners at the time — all that fat and salt. But Salisbury steak was my least favorite. Instead, when we did have tv dinners (not every night by any means, but in a regular fashion), my hands clapped over the fried chicken dinner, with a spoonful of mashed potatoes, a small gathering of lukewarm corn, and the volcanic cherry dessert that resided on the top. Thank goodness I waited until the end for that. When I tried to eat dessert first, I burned the roof of my mouth into shreds.
Later, I fell in love with French bread pizzas we slid into the microwaves and waited for them to twirl into bubbling-cheese heat. Much later, I forced myself to buy some lean and healthy tv dinners, trying to lose weight, not knowing I was eating a salt-lick’s worth of sodium with every small tray full of tepid food.
But Salisbury steak? I knew that one was the cheapest. It tasted of it too.
Around here, Salisbury steak has been only a joke. Whenever someone mentions it, the Chef intones, in his best Darth Vader voice, “Salisbury steak.” He’s imitating Chef on South Park, who was killed, and then brought alive as a mechanical Chef, along with James Earl Jones’s voice. Whenever he says it, we laugh.
The other day, as we filmed the mushroom gravy video, we started talking about what we would eat with all that leftover gravy. Pasta? Roast beef? “Salisbury steak,” intoned the Chef, joking.
“What the heck is Salisbury steak, anyway?”
We raced to look it up, in cookbooks and online. Like most foods with proper nouns for names, it has a funny history. But looking at the photographs, we both thought, “It looks like meatloaf, in a patty.”
“Let’s make some.”
So we did.
The Chef plunked down a plate on the table, so I could take a photograph of the seared meat, the quartered mushrooms, the smudge of gravy across them both. We waited. And then we dug in with our forks. And to both our surprises, we loved it.
“I could eat this all day,” he said to me, just after finishing a bite.
“Me too. Why haven’t we eaten this before?”
Granted, we made it with local grass-fed beef and fresh herbs. We also cooked it to medium heat. (All the Salisbury steaks for tv dinners had to be cooked to charred, to make sure no one grew sick.) But this was a tender piece of meat, threaded through with fresh herbs and the satisfying taste of onions sautéed slowly. It tasted fresh, not heavy. We realized we had never really eaten Salisbury steak before. Anything in a tv dinner tray isn’t really food. This was food, made in our kitchen, the baby sitting in the sunlit corner in her highchair, watching us cook and banging happily with her hand.
And it was, by far, the cheapest meal of the week.
Some foods deserve a second look.
I wish that I had really known Grace.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, peeled and fine chopped
1/2 cup fine-chopped mushrooms
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh sage
kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (we used Trader Joe’s brown rice bread, made into crumbs)
Sautéing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Pour in the oil. Tumble in the mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Stir them around a bit, intermittently. When the mushrooms and onions start to brown a bit, add the sage. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Allow the mixture to cool.
Making the steak. Combine the mushroom mixture with the ground beef, eggs, rosemary, and breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper beneath your fingers (maybe about 1 teaspoon of each. Use your own senses). Make into oblong patties, about 1 inch thick, each.
Searing the steak. Bring the sauté pan to medium-heat again. Pour in the remaining oil. Put the patties into the hot oil. Cook about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the patties have grown a lovely brown. Flip them over. Brown on the other side. Cook until you have reached desired temperature for how you like your meat cooked. (We like medium for these, or an internal temperature of about 160°.)
Serve with mushroom gravy (see this video if you would like to learn this) and sautéed onions. You can also grill these, if the weather where you are allows it.