Million Dollar Steak

cotton_field_west_texasEvery time we went to San Antonio to stay with my father’s sister’s family, we would take a tour of the older generation.  We visited Grannie Floss and Big Nanny in Goliad, Grannie Mac in the nursing home in Corpus Christi (which sounds like Carpus when my dad’s family says it) , and Uncle Billy and Aunt Doris in Portland (near Corpus).   That we did this, I learned later, was evidence of my father’s loyalty to family because he was the only one who really wanted to go. I suspect that my mother simply endured it.  She was prone to car sickness.  My brothers and I were awful about it every time.  We made it stridently clear that we were perfectly comfortable remaining with our cousins in San Antonio.  I was never comfortable as a kid being around the 85 and up crowd.  Too many unsolicited kisses, and too many manners to mind.  Plus, it was a three our drive on which we had nothing to do but count the little windmills up and down the highway.

My great uncle Billy lived on a cotton farm in a little house with his wife, Doris.  I learned from my father that he was in fact a millionaire.  He had found oil on his land.  But he was a very quiet, very humble Baptist man who must not have seen the value of living a millionaire’s life.  I felt a misplaced pride over his millions.  I bragged to friends about my rich, but humble Uncle Billy.  The response was nearly always the same.  “Are you going to inherit a lot of money?” “No,” I would say, and then they would frown, unimpressed.  In fact, I believe he left his fortune to Texas A&M and his church.

Uncle Billy said no more than twenty words to me my entire life, and most of it had to do with his loofah vine out back. He mainly watched pro wrestling or the Atlanta Braves.   It was Aunt Doris who made things interesting.  She doted on us more than any relative.  She was a gift giver; an unusual gift giver.  We could always count on a two dollar bill wrapped in a red ribbon.  She would often send us home with some unusual object lying around her house.  I remember, in particular, a letter opener with a peacock handle, which I treasured.  On at least one occasion, she sent my father some odd possession of hers in the mail; just something random and perplexing.  I could tell that my parents thought she was a bit of a kook.  She had no less than twenty paintings of windmills in her house.  I loved this peculiarity.  I was very interested in painting and she knew it. She would tell me about a few of them when I visited. I also made a game out of counting them all.

While we were there, we would often drive down the road toward Corpus until we would find a shrimper on the side of the road selling fresh-caught jumbo Gulf shrimp by the pound.  I came to love boiled shrimp on those visits.  On one occasion, I was shown how to prepare, boil and peel the fresh shrimp myself.

The one luxury they allowed themselves was membership to “the club”.  We only visited the club once for lunch.  Everybody there knew Uncle Billy.  They treated him like royalty.  It was clear to me at my young age, maybe 12, that he spent a lot of time at the club because he moved with such familiarity around the dining room and was greeted by all of the staff as Mr. Stark, and now I suspect that he must have tipped very generously.  He showed it off to us, mostly with gestures.  He directed us to a chef stir-frying scallops and pasta at a little station in the dining room.  This was the fanciest place I’d ever been.

At the table, my dad carried the conversation.  Being a minister, he knew how to do this.  I’d seen him make a conversation out of absolutely nothing with people who didn’t appear to know how to speak, all of my life.  Dad made it clear that this was Uncle Billy’s treat and that he had instructed us to order what we liked.  This was an important distinction for him to have made.  On a preacher’s salary, we rarely went out to eat and when we did it was clear that we were to eat on the cheap. I’d become very accustomed to ordering burgers, sandwiches, pasta, and chicken.

I looked at this menu in a brand new way. I allowed my eyes to peruse every item on the menu regardless of price.  The waiter came to me first.  I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, the blackened rib-eye well done as I had heard it ordered in movies.   Then my brother ordered cheap.  My mother ordered cheap.  My dad ordered cheap.  But Bill and Doris took my bet and ordered something equally as expensive.  I was grateful for that.

The details here are fuzzy, but I do seem to recall my twin brother casting me very disapproving looks as I ordered and perhaps whispering “David!”.  My mom might have said “Are you sure you want that?”  I sweated it out.  The lunch felt very tense to me from the moment I ordered, but I also held my head up high.  I began to imagine myself as a “club” person.  Perhaps the staff would think I was a millionaire myself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my twin recalled me using some sort of affected speech with the waiter.

When the server finally put the steak in front of me, he asked me to cut into it.  I examined it and saw that the steak was indeed blackened, but not in the way I expected.  I merely thought it would be heavily rubbed with spices and seared.  I cut into it, not really knowing what was expected of me and indicated my approval.  It was a very tough piece of meat.

I hoped, in that moment, that the blackness of the steak was not an indication that it was heavily burnt, but as I took my first bite I was sorely disappointed.  It was indeed burnt.  I chewed, but it was no use.  I never swallowed the first bite.  I discreetly spit it out into the cloth napkin.  I dug into the potatoes and green beans instead, hoping that no one would notice.

But my dad noticed.  I don’t remember what he said, but there was something in his tone that suggested that if I was going to order something so expensive, I’d darn well better eat it.  But Billy understood.  He understood that it wasn’t what I had expected.  In as few words as possible, he indicated that he wanted to know if I’d like something else and that I need not feel obligated to eat it.  I declined to order something else.  I knew that I’d already pressed my luck beyond the pale.

On the car ride home, my twin gave me what for in the backseat, or at least that’s the way I remember it.  I suspect that he was a little jealous that I had grabbed the golden ring which had been out of his grasp due to his humility, and not for the first time.  My twin is a decent person.  He recognized the expectations made of us at the club.  We were guests.  We were not the millionaires.  We were still the preacher’s kids.  And although I recognized these expectations as well, I also recognized that Uncle Billy, the millionaire cotton farmer, could afford the blackened ribeye.

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