It’s my sixth day of cold-turkey Twitter hiatus. I haven’t logged in. I have no idea what’s going on in that world I’ve been living in. I’m not sure what this means or why I felt I had to exit there, which is the reason I can’t go back. I miss the people, my Twitterati, my connection, but I am wondering if maybe I am just not meant to be connected to the world, to anyone, really. There is so much of me no one knows, and, well, I want to be held in ways no one really can — I think I am re-parenting me in a way. Not that my parenting was flawed in the first place, far from it. And so, here, a story about my Mom, and a recipe. Love and Light whoever you are out there. Sorry if you came here looking for naked Dylan O’Brien, those days seem to be long gone.
I got to host Momma for Sunday dinner. Unexpectedly.
This is worlds more complicated than it sounds since seeing Momma requires driving to the Home for the Aged (that’s what they call it, have called it, since the 1800s) and getting her and her walker from her third floor residence, down the historic front steps, into the car, and then from the car and into my apartment which requires either a long sidewalk trek and a flight up to the front door of my building and down a flight into my apartment, or, an alternate shorter roll across the lawn where tree roots and damp patches lurk. Too, of late, Momma has begun to forget she’s being picked up and so not been waiting at the front door, signed out, I.D. necklaced and ready, or, has fallen asleep in her chair, book on her lap. Because of this, she’s instructed me to call before I come. So, on Sunday, once I realized I should bring her over for dinner, I spoke to her on the phone to say I would be done at the gym between 3:30-4:00 and would call her to let her know.
Well, I called. No answer.
I try not to panic anymore. She is 88. Too, my sister had messaged me while I was gymming saying that Mom had called to say she’d be having game time in the afternoon but would return to her room by 3:30 to wait for my call. Well, Mommy and time, not such a great match-up anymore. Long short, she never did answer. I got to the home, got buzzed in, arrived in the activities room in time to hear her saying to her pals gathered round the Sorry game board; “I better go. My son’s going to be calling me soon.” I said, “Your son’s been calling you for twenty minutes. I’m right behind you.”
This is where I should have been full of gratitude she was fine and active and the healthiest and heartiest of the group at the table. Instead, I believe I let loose what might be called a harrumph. I am ashamed of that. Momma, eager to un-harrumph me and save time, sent me up to the third floor to get her purse, in which were her diabetes supplies, doled out by the nursing staff at the home in anticipation of her journey out for dinner. When I got back down to the first floor with said purse and supplies, there she was at the elevator door, looking sad; “Charlie, I have my bedroom slippers on. We need to go back upstairs so I can put on some shoes.”
I confess I then got the look on my face and radiated energy that said, “I think I might explode.” And she read me. She’s my Mom. She hung her head and said, “I’m sorry Charlie.” Which is all it took.
I felt such guilt. Who the fuck am I to tell her where to be and how to be and behave as if I need be in some hurry to get somewhere? What sort of ungrateful piece of shit makes his mother hang her head? I wanted to cry and apologize and beg forgiveness and have her comfort me and tell me it was okay but, see, it’s not her turn to take care of my shit anymore, and so I laughed and smiled and said, “Mommy, ignore me. Jeesh, please, what else do I have to do today that’s more fun than playing hide and seek and riding the elevator with you?” She laughed. We laughed. I kissed her. And we re-booted to a happy beginning.
I call that showing up.
During forty years of acting, directing, and producing theatre, I only ever missed one rehearsal. The guilt still gnaws. I took my theatre work — paid and unpaid, poverty causing even — very seriously.
I showed up.
But by not missing rehearsals I did miss a lot of other things, like my grandfather’s funeral, an interview for a real job paying real money I really needed, countless family gatherings, and much more. I allowed my commitment to and passion for one thing to compromise my ability to be there for other things in other ways.
I was absent from much of my life.
Which is why I am now so cognizant of being where I have promised to be, doing what I have said I’ll do, on time, completely, all of me, present in my life, present for others. Especially my Mom. I wasn’t always good or kind to her. It’s one of the reasons I am grateful for the Thursdays I now get to spend with my Mom and why I consider them to be of sacred importance. It’s the reason why when her regular Sunday relative is unavailable, Mom doesn’t need to remind me how much she hates being alone and idle on Sundays, or ask me to do the dinner thing, it’s my pleasure and my joy to be present for her.
It is funny, though, this gene thing. While I do love cooking big meals for my family, my idea of a perfect Sunday (and what I thought I’d be doing this week) is to prep and start slow-cooking something outrageously and unhealthily country-cooking-ish early in the day, never change out of my sweats, and curl up all day long with a good book knowing I’ve nowhere to be and nothing to do and no one to take care of. I don’t mind not having company.
But, my Mom comes first.
This week, I only discovered by accident Momma would be alone on Sunday, but the fates must have known because I was already planning to make All-Day Swiss Steak and mashed potatoes, a meal Momma was excited about and said she hadn’t had in “I don’t know how long, but it was years ago when I was still making it.”
Before I begin, let me explain that Sunday is “free day” on the diet my sister and I are on, so we go wild then. This recipe is rich and high in calories and I am not sorry about that AT ALL. This Sunday, Momma got to go wild with us. Actually, she was with us last Sunday, too, and will be with us next Sunday as well, so, we’ve been lucky enough to meal with her three days a week the past few weeks.
ALL-DAY SWISS STEAK
THE NIGHT BEFORE: This is a Fall/Winter dish and my version is savory, heavy on the tomato sauce and garlic, and absolutely requires gargantuan mounds of mashed potatoes — also garlicked. That said, what makes this such a fantastic dish for everyone and anyone to make is that it requires no culinary skills whatsoever and you can use any old cheap cut of beef you like. I got my so-called bottom roast about a month ago when a local grocer was having a half price sale and I tossed it in the freezer, knowing I’d use it for some slow-cooked fall dish when the weather got cooler. I thawed it on Saturday, and in the evening I poured some extra virgin olive oil (which, by the way, I bought for next to nothing at Ollie’s Outlets) and Malbec (because I had it on hand, a gift) and garlic powder, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning into a sealable gallon bag, slapped in the thawed-cheap-beef, tossed it, flipped it, rubbed it through the wrapping, and then let it chill overnight. (Is it just me, or did that sound an awful lot like one of my sex-swipe assignations?) I also climbed up on the counter to get my HUGE Martha Stewart Dutch oven so it would be ready for me in the morning. (Not so assignation-like, that, as I do NOT do the next morning sorts of things. Once I’ve tossed my cheap-beefs, I need to head home.)
THE MORNING OF: I started my preparation around 10a.m. After turning your oven on to 200 degrees, the first thing you need to do is brown the meat. For Swiss Steak, I like to coat the meat in a flour mixture. It not only helps with the browning, but some of it invariably sticks to the pan and so starts to create the base of the sauce. I happen to have rather a large supply of gluten-free ingredients from the days when I lived with someone who was gluten intolerant and, too, when it was thought I might be suffering from celiac disease (I’m not) so my coating for the beef was a combination of gluten-free brown rice flour and gluten-free all-purpose baking flour, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper. I threw these into a bowl, whisked to mix, and dropped the beef in there, patting both sides with just a light coating. SAVE THE FLOUR MIXTURE!
While this went on, a few tablespoons of olive oil and a few tablespoons of butter were melting to a sizzle in my Martha Stewart Dutch Oven. (I have three Martha Stewart Dutch Ovens. I use them and my Lodge Cast Iron Skillet all the time.) I drop a sprinkle of water from my fingertip into the melted oil and butter, if it spits and shoots like mini-fireworks, the fats are ready for the meat. Gentle it in there and enjoy that fizzy sound of meat meets fats heat.
I go for just a nice light browning, but some prefer it crustier. For me, it’s mostly about sealing in the meat’s juices with the sear rather than getting a deep brown. What I’m really after is what’s left in the pan once you’ve browned to the degree you like and removed the meat. Here’s where the fun begins.
Once you’ve removed the meat, there on the bottom of the pan is all the lovely, near-burnt flour mixture, clumping up with the deliciously fatty oil and butter, and it wants to stick. Or, maybe it has already begun to stick. Well, here’s what you do: splash in a healthy dollop of a red wine and deglaze that sucker.
When first I started fooling around with food, I thought deglaze an odd word, and I thought it ought to refer to icings and sweets, have to do with sugar. So, of course, I looked it up — there’s no justification for collecting ancient dictionaries at used book sales if you don’t use them every day — and its origin is the French, deglacer.I still think it sounds like something to do with icing. Or, better, frosting. Frosting and deglaze, they both sound cold, right?
Some things just sound funny, don’t they? Or, don’t make sense. For example, in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific (which I love) in the song Cockeyed Optimist, Nellie sings: “I could say life is just a bowl of Jello/And appear more intelligent and smart.” Really? Why? How is saying life is like a bowl of Jello in any way smart? When I directed the show and was staging the number, I couldn’t find my way into that line. Luckily, I had a brilliant woman playing Nellie, so most of my work was done for me; her eyes were portals to Nellie’s truth and soul, and the show was glorious because of her. She killed that Jello line. But it still makes no damned sense.
Where were we? Oh, right. Some wine. Deglaze. Now, it’s time to saute the vegetables. I started by chopping about six cloves of garlic and five small onions. I threw it all in at once and let it start to get transparent which takes about five minutes. I like to not stir the garlic and onions until they are almost sticking to the pan, turning brownish along the edges, just toying with burning them. Once they’ve gotten near-smoky good, I toss in a few chopped celery stalks from the heart region (but I don’t buy celery hearts because it’s too pricey and celery is celery) and a leek, also chopped. Now, if I had had a nice fresh leek, I’d have used the darker green upper portions too because they have a nice, harsh bite which adds interesting notes to tomato sauces. Alas, my aging leek’s outer and upper layers were going bad and required peeling away. No worries, under the layer of old and rotting was something delicious. (Take a lesson there, Grindr twinks.) So, toss in these veggies (And more wine if you need to, we’re simmering now, not browning, and, truly, what can more wine hurt?) and TURN THE HEAT DOWN NOW. We’re reducing from the medium heat (to medium high, depending on your stove and your pan) to low heat. I want these veggies to get semi-tender by simmering, whereas the garlic and onions we sizzled. I left mine on for about ten minutes — the goal here is NOT to get them fully cooked, but, rather, to begin the flavor blending; we must gently introduce them to one another and allow them time to get acquainted and bond.
Okay, now, turn off the heat. Remember, if you’ve a Martha Stewart (or any decent) Dutch Oven it will hold the heat FOREVER, so, do be careful. Next step; plop your flour coated, sort of browned cheap meat on top of your wine-y, buttery, delicious vegetable mixture.
Now, find that flour you saved and pat the beef with it, then flip the beef over and pat the other side, then sprinkle the remainder of the flour over the vegetables.
There is NO NEED to worry about lumpage. By the time the all day simmering is done, there will be only a smooth, delicious, magnificently thick red gravy.
Red? Yes. Because now we add the tomatoes.
I have, in the past, used fresh tomatoes. I have, in the past, roasted tomatoes in olive oil with onions and garlic in the oven. I have. But, this weekend, I didn’t. I used the cheapest cans of tomatoes I could find. One 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes, one 28 ounce can of tomato puree. Just glug them in there. I then added three bay leaves, a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce, poured in more wine (about half a tomato can’s worth, used it to rinse all the tomato goodness into the sauce), covered it all, and put it into my pre-heated 200 degree oven.
Your work is almost done. I put my concoction in the oven around 11:00a.m. I checked on it and stirred it around at noon and again at 1. Then I went to the gym and left it alone until I arrived home with Momma about 4:15. I stirred it again. Very thick. I made a huge bowl of garlicky-mashed potatoes and a smaller bowl of green beans.
I got the steak out of the oven at 5:15. Pulled the steak from the pot, put on platter, pulled it apart, ladled on some of the sauce. Filled a bowl with more sauce. Put all of this, along with the mashers and beans, on the table and we dined: Momma, my dear sister, and yours truly, Charlie.
I am one of those “clean up the kitchen before you serve” people but Sunday is a more relaxed day, a throwback to the Sunday dinners where many branches of the family gathered at my aunt Sissie’s in Libertytown and the doing of dishes after the meal was as much ritualized as the meal itself. My kitchen is too small for anyone to help, and I work better solo. So, the three of us ate looking at the aftermath, and I have to say, something about the mess of it all radiated a comforting, homey love to me.
These times I get to spend with and meals I get to make for my Mom are amazing revelations. We’ve become more courageous with one another, more open, brave enough to ask about things and share some secrets. Sunday, in the car on the way from her place to mine, she said something to me nearly shocking and I said, “Mother!” She said, “Oh Charlie, I’m only saying it to you. I wouldn’t say it to anyone else.”
That sentence is perhaps the greatest gift she has ever given me.
But, also during dinner on Sunday as we talked about her past — I am always Anderson Cooper-ing her now, because after my aunt, Sissie, had died I was sorry about the things I hadn’t asked — I learned for the first time that she had gone to work at sixteen because once both of her parents had died, none of her five brothers and sisters could afford to take care of her. I knew she had gone to Baltimore, briefly, to study at a secretarial school, but she got too homesick — not surprising for a child of sixteen who had lost her mother at twelve and father at fourteen and never been away from home — and so she came back from “the city” and then, she told me Sunday with a smile both mischievous and confessional, “And I just got married. That was the end of that. Then it was all over and too late.”
It wasn’t cruel, that sentence, nor sad. She doesn’t do regret so much, my Mom. She takes everything that life throws at her — and she’s had enough everything thrown to bury most people — and she keeps going, and she shows up. Which, in the end, I think, is the place where we have met in these surprising later years of our lives, this place where we can laugh at how we did what we did and that was the end of that and it was all over and too late and still, dammit, here we are, going, ending up with each other after all these decades: WE SHOW UP.
She and my sister moved to the living room, couch and recliner, while I cleared and cleaned and coffee-ed. I needed to take out the trash and recycling — it’s an apartment complex and I don’t want to encourage the roaches so I clear out everything daily — and while I was out there, the parking lot with its dumpsters which is the view from my bedroom, I saw the sun setting behind the Fort Detrick water tower. Look:
Isn’t that a gorgeous sight? Isn’t there some peace to be found in the sun going down? And knowing, tomorrow morning, every tomorrow morning, no matter how long the night, no matter the tossing or the nightmares or the worries, or, especially, no matter this sort of existential disconnect I’m experiencing, this regret about all my nights spent alone, about the love I missed, about the me I might have, about the losses and the angers and the never going to be the sames and all the sad, silly, sorrowful, tragic, awful ways in which things didn’t and did turn out, no matter all of that, here I am, having made my sister and my Momma a dinner full of memories and echoes from our pasts — pasts still full of secrets and stories to be shared — and I am in this parking lot, lugging bags of garbage and bins of recyclables, and there is the sun going down, and this son, winding down, and no matter what, tomorrow morning, again, the sun will show up, bring its light, the love of its energy to all of us. Another day.
And for at least one more, I know, in that moment, I will show up too.
And so, my loves, here I am, going.