As the new war season starts to heat up, the American experience can increasingly be defined in terms of the extent to which we (a) agree to be spied upon and (b) maintain our opulent Americanity in the face of impending global doom and the suffering of millions.
Toward the first end, snoopism proliferates like booty calls after 2 a.m. Surveillance cameras at the grocery store document that afternoon last August when we wore sweatpants to buy cheese. Our neighbors, keenly aware that our weed-ridden lawn suggests sinister inclinations, if not connections to al- Qaida, are urged to report us to America's Most Wanted. Not to mention the virtual John Ashcroft on our hard drive, reading our e-mail and tracking the subversive words ("manifest destiny," "sexist pig") plugged into our Google searches.
Toward the second end, as a means of flouting the so-called unsustainability of our superior way of life, I believe I have hit upon the ultimate political declaration. Forget the SUV. Forget plastic car flags. I'm talking about dinner at a steakhouse.
Last week I was sprawling around with a blossomy glass or two of Erath Pinot Gris 2000 (this month's must-drink from the swirling mists of Oregon), absently watching television while trying to decipher the cover of the new McSweeney's (it can't be done), when a commercial caught my eye, a lo-fi spot selling the upscale St. Louis Steakhouse. This same joint had recently sent me a press release touting a "month-long celebration welcoming Chef Rex [Hale] back to the greatest city in the world." What, besides a strip club, is more all-American, more archly patriarchal, more ultranationalist than a steakhouse? Especially one in the, uh, greatest city in the world?
I mean, while 30,000 people die every day from starvation, it takes sixteen bushels of genetically modified corn to produce pound of beef. If that's not American, what is?
Drunk on the heady jingoistic perfume of these last few antebellum weeks (or maybe it was the pinot gris), I collected my chums Babs Woof and Colonel Tex Trailer and splashed downtown to dissect some blood-red, corn-fed USDA prime at this as-seen-on-TV steakhouse. Why stick a lousy flag on the car? If we don't eat beef, the terrorists win.
The exalted St. Louis Steakhouse serves nothing that did not once have a face. Luckily, Babs and the Colonel are not Buddhists. In fact, I think they're on PETA's "Ten Most Wanted" list. A passion for beefy delicacies unites them. Not only do they own a freezer containing a side of custom-butchered steer (as well as the odd ham), the Colonel actually carries in his pocket a tin of chawlike shredded jerky in case of a beef emergency. So the closer they got to all that expensive meat, the more beatific (some might say "drooly slack-jawed") they looked. The Woof-Trailers had whiffed the glories of heaven. The mothership was calling them home.
From the Rat Pack soundtrack to the lobster tank in the entry, St. Louis Steakhouse is strictly old-school. The lights are low, the air is cool, the portions are epic and the prices are airborne, which is why the guys at the next table are executives on expense accounts sucking up to important clients. It opened in the old Ruth's Chris spot some four or five years ago, but food-wise this place is a time vault, virtually untouched by the ravages of nouveau-pesto-chipotle-crème fraîche-ism. There are no whimsical sauces of dried fruit or squeeze-bottled lemongrass oil. There are no platings structurally engineered to resemble installations at MoMA. There are no ironic, pan-global or exotic flights of chefly fancy -- just hunk after à la carte hunk of red American meat. Ordinarily I would find this difficult to stomach, but the beauty of the fine-dining steakhouse is that it conceals the savagery of the carnage beneath a shimmering veil of sycophantic service and patrician appointments. Go USA!
After warming up with the amuse-bouche (a nice little bruschetta), the consensus was to take a couple of easy laps with a shared order of barbecued shrimp. These turned out to be four enormous prawns drenched in a superb peppery sauce composed mainly of butter -- and garlic. When the fighting over the fourth shrimp had subsided, we dunked all available bits of bread -- our basket was a sort of Noah's ark of baked goods -- with excellent results.
As I do whenever live lobster is in evidence, I abandoned the dictates of reason to the siren song of lobster bisque. This was a princely, decadent specimen that earned top marks in spite of its blistering temperature and the two or three disagreeably mealy strips of claw meat chucked in as an afterthought. Still, for the soup lover interested in laying the groundwork for her next triple bypass, this insanely rich bisque won't disappoint.
The salad course marked the evening's only flaw. The assistant waiter had to ask us who got which salads, a faux pas that, when one dines at this exalted level, is surpassed only by the fellow's other gaffe, which was a failure to furnish us with necessary silverware. The Colonel's Caesar had a rich mayonnaisey dressing that could have used a little more anchovy, and Babs' tomato salad contained tomatoes that were only so-so. This was disillusioning, but we didn't dwell on it. After all, we hadn't come here to graze on plants like a bunch of peace-loving Green-ass Bohemian feminist radicals. We were out for blood.
As is often the case when dining with the Meat Twins, conversation had turned to the always-lively topic of corn-fed versus grass-fed beef when suddenly a flock of waiters materialized out of the ether. They buzzed around the table for a few seconds in a cloud of black-and-white efficiency, then vanished into the night.
The steaks had arrived.
For a time, our surroundings seemed to melt into mist. We experienced an ascending flight of abstracted carnivorous musings. The only sound was the dulcet melody of knives on china and the occasional murmur of pure meat pleasure. The Colonel's New York strip, Babs' fillet-cum-lobster tail and my lamb chops, all delivered perfectly medium rare and gloriously unhindered by superfluous augmentation, could not have been simpler or more lavish. It wasn't until the maitre d' floated by to inquire whether everything was "cooked to perfection this evening" that we were startled out of our flesh-induced reverie. We wanted to salute her, but, choked with the fat of the land, we could only wordlessly nod.
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