Monday, January 14, 2008

Chicken-fried satisfaction, with a history back

A piece of Seattle's blue-collar brewing history is going bye-bye and going upscale. Rainier Cold Storage was once a part of Seattle Malting and Brewing Company, which, in its heyday, was the world's sixth-largest brewery.

A few Saturdays back, I sat in a window alcove at Jules Maes Saloon, across the street from the old brewery. I'd just bought a growler of porter at Georgetown Brewing Company, the microbrewery that inhabits Seattle Malting and Brewing's former malting room. I was trying to convince my dining companion that chicken-fried steak ain't a breaded-beef abomination. Across Airport Way, progress circled for a landing.

My dining companion hails from Nashville. Her grandfather was an Iowa cattleman. She knows steak. Her childhood maid, from all family accounts, made mean fried chicken. My dining companion doesn't think chicken-fried and steak belong together. She said she'd never had a bite of chicken-fried steak. I told her we'd driven to Grit City Del Norte for chicken-fried steak. She didn't make a sound, but I heard "Ewwwww" drawl off her lips like red-eye gravy runs down double chins.

After ordering Jules Maes' signature chicken-fried steak -- a crispy beauty that walks the tender line between hand-cut steak and hand-ground hamburger, with fennel-kissed gravy, garlic-spiked mashed potatoes and the freshest green beans I’ve eaten in a dusty Old Westy bar -- I reached for a literary gun.

"Dorothy Allison says you're wrong," I chided my dining companion. I wielded an essay the novelist wrote for The New York Times Magazine.

People call it country-fried steak, but Mama always called it cube steak. She began with odd, indented slabs of cheap meat carried home from the diner where she was on her feet all day. My sisters and I would pound the “steak” while she rested. The little round mouth of the Coke bottle thudded into the meat over and over until each piece was not only dimpled but flattened out half again as wide as it had been. By the time Mama stopped us, the steaks would be tenderized almost to pieces. Then she would shoo us out of the way, make up the biscuits and sift some of the flour onto a plate. Dredged in flour, the steaks went into a hot cast-iron skillet with a good covering of bacon fat. So long as we set the table and were useful, we were allowed to watch Mama cook the steaks and then set them aside on a brown paper bag. ... Mama made magic with cheap meat, flour and determination — hiding from us how desperate things might be. She did such a good job of it that we came to believe cube steak a luxury, better than the rare T-bone our uncles might bring around as a surprise.

I knew my dining companion digs Dorothy Allison; I read her dog-eared copy of "Bastard Out of Carolina." I'd hoped The Times' imprimatur would sway my dining companion's chicken-fried thinking. Nothing doing. I told her that Dorothy Allison lives in our old San Francisco neighborhood. Nothing doing.

"I'm sure you didn't eat like this at the Belle Meade Country Club," I said, "but for a lot of people, chicken-fried steak is good eating."

My chicken-fried steak arrived. I chewed on Dorothy Allison's words:

My son, Wolf, was born when I was past 40 and the author of a best-selling novel. That means he has grown up a middle-class child — one who sometimes asks me for stories of my childhood but knows nothing of what it means to grow up poor and afraid. I have worked to make sure of that. His favorite foods are all dishes I never even knew existed until I was a voting adult: spinach soufflés, steamed mussels and sautéed brussels sprouts. He has almost never eaten an egg yolk and never took an interest in gravy ... more often, I do what I know. I roast a chicken or pan-fry a steak and make pan gravy to go with it. Sometimes my boy comes to watch me cook. I watch him. He is getting so tall, now four inches taller than I and growing fast, while the world looms ever larger and more uncertain. I try not to worry. I try to make him feel he is home and safe and will always be so, no matter what comes to the door.

The demolition man stands at the door of Rainier Cold Storage. I hope whoever occupies those lofts and offices that will soon replace blue-collar brewing history enjoys chicken-fried steak. Jules Maes makes a mean one. Ask my dining companion: I handed her my fork. On it was a hunk of chicken-fried steak, one of the best around. (The other's here.) She ate it, as I knew she would. She asked for more, as I knew she would. Satisfaction was my riches.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A diary of occasional odyssey

I pay for all meals, beverages and service. I post receipts. Any opinions I express on this blog are expressly my own. Want to help keep this site running? If your publication is based outside of the Puget Sound region, I'll sell you the reprint rights to what I write. I'm also available for original freelance eating and drinking and writing and commentary assignments in the western United States and Canada. I do multimedia. E-mail me.