Milestones of my life are momentous meals: graduations, weddings, and birthdays come to mind. Sunday night is a momentous meal—a going-away dinner—the whole family has been planning and preparing for a while now.
We’re having roast beef—more specifically—prime rib. Dad’s favourite. I want it to be perfect, grudgingly accepting nothing is perfect and squishing the space out between perfection and reality so that you can’t slip even a meat thermometer through it. Wanting it so nearly perfect that no one will notice.
While boarding an aircraft to return to my parents home for this final meal, thoughts of Mom and Dad in the early days swirl in my head. I envision them as young parents, scrimping, no meat in their menu, save a sale ground round, or an occasional discounted knuckle of Hereford.
When you’re prairie raised you learn early about good beef. It is a lesson that never leaves. As a child, tagging along at Safeway, mother taught me how to select good beef. She never said a word to me. Instead, I learned by watching what she selected, comparing muscle colour, fat composition, and bone structure for best value. Each shopping trip was an education measuring what we selected through the shrink-wrap against what ended up on my plate.
I learned to recognize medium ground from lean. Chuck roast is best cooked easy and slow.
More expensive rumps are boneless and make your lips smack for a hearty family meal. Short ribs are the most beefy. Shanks are toughest and can be tenderized with moist relentless heat. I learned how to dig roast marrow out of a round bone and put it on my crisp potato jacket. Tender Filet is most expensive, best reserved for the pinnacle of celebrations. Sirloin steak is nearly as good as strip loin if you get the right cut with middle marbled fat, appropriate for Friday night barbecues in June. I learned chuck steak needs tomato sauce, round steak needs mushroom gravy, and T-bone steak needs nothing.
I learned butchers packaged three-dimensional meat for display in two-dimensions. What looked great through the clear wrapper in the store degraded when you got it home and out of the Styrofoam tray, discovering a disappointing chunk of hiding hip or round bone. I remember feeling tricked and wondered if they taught this at butcher school. “Merchandising” they would call it, I imagine.
I learn as much from those failures as successes.
Mother glowed after Sunday dinner when Dad said, “That was a good piece of meat, wasn’t it kids?” Sometimes he would say, “Darling, this roast cuts like butter,” carving knife in one hand, meat fork in the other, as he stood at the head of the table, king’s chair set to one side, maple cutting board in front with a small moat around the roast brimming with juice.
By the time there was a teen at the end of my age, the misses on the meat selection were rare indeed. As a result of my younger brother, sister and I beginning to eat in earnest, we purchased beef by the side. That was the first time I had a prime rib roast. Gone were the days of meatless meals.
A lifetime of eating premium Alberta beef leads me to choose prime rib as the celebratory meat for roasting. Prime rib is the best of everything, tender meat with beef rich flavour, enough marbling and cap fat that it roasts juicy. It’s big enough to feed everyone. The seven bones that support the full roast add flavour, structure, and a bit of caveman experience, if you take a bone in your hands, Barney Rubble style, and gnaw the last bit of caramelized goodness off.
From pleasurable experience I can tell you the best part of the roast. Each part has its own unique and special characteristics. Slice a piece of prime rib and lay it on your plate. There are three parts, like provinces in prime country: a rib eye capital surrounded by a border of thick muscle, caramelized, salty and brown, (my favourite) and the other side, a border of rib bone. Take a trip through all of it, enjoy the journey.
Prime rib is for dinner tomorrow night. A momentous dinner; a going-away dinner, Dad’s last in his own home. He doesn’t sit in the king’s chair anymore, handing over the meat fork and carving knife a few months back.
We have selected a new home for Dad, where they know just how to care for him. A home where we hope they will come to love him as much as we do, where he will be safe, where he can rest. A home where he can have roast beef.
The sun shines through my closed eyelids, head resting on the compression-sealed glass of the aircraft, me slouched in the window seat. This is the last leg of a trip home to be with Mom and Dad. Mom and I will select a perfect prime rib and use a lifetime of kitchen skills to make a nearly perfect dinner.
It will be me who carves the roast. I promise to do my best, trying to close that gap a meat thermometer could slide through.
I hope he recognizes me.