July 30, 2012

A Canuck in Kantuck: The grief fades when memories don’t

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — There were many ways my dad showed he loved my little brother Matthew and I, but never was it so plain a display, I realize now that I’m older, as when he would cook us a meal. Whenever Matthew and I would go to his house, he would jump up off the couch and head to the kitchen, leaving us to watch football in the living room.

“What can I get you?” he’d say, this psychologist sounding immediately like a short-order cook.

Sometimes we’d ask for pizza. Sometimes just sandwiches. But often it was hamburgers, the most delicious hamburgers in the world.

A lot of people thought his secret had to do with the fact that he fried the meat, yes, in butter. But I know now it had everything to do with where the meat came from: a little butcher tucked in the tough North End of Winnipeg where they would grind the chuck as my dad watched them do it.

When we were really young, and before he was taking his cholesterol medicine, my dad would get home after running a slew of errands, open the package of ground beef and take a few bites of the meat raw. Matthew and I would usually be crowded around him looking to see if he had bought us chocolate bars at Costco and he’d give us a few bites too. I know the idea sounds unsettling, but actually the meat was delicious. Clean tasting. Honest.

Anyway, after my parents got divorced and my dad was settled in his little house on the river, he’d still get his meat from Tenderloin Meats and he’d use it to make us  hamburgers.

I wish I had watched him cook more, because I know he must have had a special way of forming his patties. They were very flat but perfectly round — I’ve never been able to replicate them — so that they just needed a quick sear. In another pan, he’d melt more butter and add onions, frying them gently until they caramelized. And that was usually it. He’d enclose the patty and onions in a soft bun and bring it to us in the living room, the clean mechanic’s towels he used as napkins (another Costco purchase) tucked under his arm.

I’m not sure what he was thinking when he made them. My grandma told us my dad had wanted to grow up to be a grill cook at Salisbury House, the local burger chain in Winnipeg, so maybe he was thinking about his lost dream.

Judging from how I feel when cooking for my stepdaughter Gabrielle, though, he was probably just thinking about how he was happy we were spending the afternoon at his place, staying long enough to have a meal.

With the anniversary of his death approaching slowly this month — not as heavy as it was last year — I’ve started craving those hamburgers. So a few weeks ago I called up Critchfield’s in Lexington and, in a voice probably as stern as my dad’s, asked them if they could grind up some chuck for me.

“Yep, I grind up the meat every morning,” the butcher responded easily, and I knew my dad would approve.

Always when I walk into Critchfield’s, that special, charming place, I feel happy. Maybe it’s the fact that they sell tubs of beer cheese on one side of the store and killer, homemade demi-glace on the other. That you can get fresh, thick-cut bacon but you can also buy duck breasts or sweet breads if you want. Everyone is always in a good mood there, probably because they’re masters of their craft and their customers know it.

When I arrived, the butcher handed me the carefully wrapped meat I’d asked for over the phone. On my way out, I also picked up a package of homemade buns my dad would also appreciate: soft as pillows and made with the whitest flour imaginable.

While I formed the patties that night and my husband went outside to grill them, I wasn’t thinking of my dad. The salve of time has allowed for that, whole days and hours without thinking of him and whole weeks without thinking of the terrible end. In fact, as I assembled the burgers they weren’t even like his. I added fresh lettuce from the garden, a slice of oxheart tomato, tangy bread and butter pickles.

It wasn’t until I had my first bite, seeing and tasting the exquisite pink still in the center of the patty, that I remembered exactly how my dad looked standing over his gas stove, stirring the onions, his forearms tan from the summer, his T-shirt clean but stained from weekend projects in the garage. I missed him sharply then, but didn’t cry. And then, with a slow smile forming on my face, I kept eating.

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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