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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Shocking Price of Beef

July 15, 1992

I served red meat for supper last night.  Standing well back, I tossed chunks of it to my snarling pack of men, watching as they attacked it ferociously, growling, snapping, teeth rending and tearing, grease and pink juice running down their chins.  Clots of baked blood and bits of gristle were licked from their whiskers and sighs of contentment filled the room as, one by one, they became sated and drowsy, gorged with meat and suet.  I smiled at their pleasure.  It had been a long, grueling ordeal, this past marathon of roast turkey, fried turkey, stewed turkey, boiled turkey; turkey sur-prise, turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey nip, turkey tetrazzini; turkey crepes, turkey omelets, turkey pizza, turkey fajitta....

I didn't really throw pieces of meat to my men, though.  I sliced the little baron of beef roast into crusty brown medallions, pink-faced and tender, and nestled them neatly among the golden glazed potatoes and carrots on the big blue serving platter.  A fresh green salad and  hot rolls completed the meal, along with a big jug of savoury gravy, for pouring over and dipping into.

The meal was a symphony of flavour, if I say so myself, a delight to the eye and a joy to the palate, even if it hadn't been for the Dindon Braise au Choufleurs and so on. And it was a far, far cry from the first roast I'd ever cooked.

I'll never forget the first roast I cooked.  I was only 12 but I had "looked after things" quite a few times by then and was fairly comfortable with the ala carte menu, could prepare a half-ways decent meal and most sandwiches.  Besides, Mom always left me a big pot of stew for a special, easy and quick to serve and no-hassle preparation. This time was going to be a little different, though.  The folks were going to be gone for several days, it was was early summer and fairly busy already.  My friend, Karen Gebert - also 12 -  was imported to lend a hand and she and l0-year-old Jo took turns serving while I whipped up the orders out back.

It was fine the first day, lots of soup and stew and desserts and gravy.  The second day, we were getting low on stew and gravy and, by Sunday, we were out of a special.  Karen and I put our heads together for a big consultation.

"Mom said I should cook a roast if we ran out of stew."

"Do you know how?" Karen asked.

"Sure," I said confidently, crossing my fingers.  "Mom just puts it in the oven with salt and pepper and cooks it.  Easy as pie."  How did I know?  I'd never made a pie in my life!

At 10 in the morning, I put 10 pounds of frozen beef into the oven.  It's hard, when you're 12, to remember to put wood in the stove and by noon, the meat was barely beginning to thaw, never mind brown.  But it was OK, not too busy, and the few customers we had wanting just sand-wiches and soup, which I had revitalized with a few cans of Campbells vegetable.  The afternoon wore on.  And so did the roast, teaming and weeping away in the oven.  Finally, it had to happen.

"And what do you have on the special?" asked the dapper man with the small mustache and English accent.  Karen looked at me.  "Roast beef?" I nodded.  "Excellent!" exclaimed Mr. Moustache.  "I'll have that and a bowl of soup, if you have it."  Karen began setting up his table; I hauled my roast out of the oven.

After 5 hours in a hot-warm-cool-warm oven, the beef had thawed and begun to stew a bit but it could hardly be described as a roast. It looked bad: greyish and tan and wet.  The juice in the bottom of the pan was pinkish water.  I poured it off, thickened it and turned my attention to slicing the meat.  It wasn't easy.

I attacked it against the grain.  Off came a tan slice of serrated meat.  I tried another surface, grey and rubbery, then another, as Karen watched with interest.  "Do you think it's done?" she asked, gazing at the blood that had begun to seep through the wounds I was making.  "Medium well," I replied with more confidence than I felt.  I heaped the lukewarm stuff on a plate, added the trimmings and care- fully ladled on some of the pale pink gravy.  "Here you go."  I handed her the order.

Shortly, the dapper Englishman came to the counter and paid for his meal.  As he took his change, he asked Karen, "And who, may I ask, cooked my food?"  Karen pointed at me.  "She did." 

Mr. Moustache looked at me for a long moment.  Finally, he spoke.  "That was a shocking piece of beef," he said.  "Shocking!"

Shocking.  It's an ordinary word but one that doesn't come up much in ordinary conversation and if you say it two or three times, it starts to sound like a word from another language.  The funny part about it, I wasn't even sure what he'd meant when he said it.  "A shocking piece of beef?"  Good or bad?  But when I took another look at the bleeding hunk of meat still on the counter, I was fairly sure I had not re-ceived a compliment.  Shocking, indeed!

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