*Or, This Is Not a President’s Choice Product**
*Or, See How Much I Want to Attend Eat, Write, Retreat ?
[Voilà–homemade, veggie-based “beef” jerky. Well, it looks like beef. . . ]
The other day, I was bemoaning the fact that there are a bunch of cool blogger conferences coming up this spring—none of which I’m attending. Then I noticed a tweet for five (five!) scholarships to the upcoming Eat, Write, Retreat event. I was about to kick up my heels and dance a little jig when I noticed that the scholarships were sponsored by Canadian Beef.
Pouting, I fired off a twitter retort: “Too bad you have to eat meat to qualify.”
Well, couldn’t you have just knocked me over with a steak knife when I spied the following response: “not necessarily. . . . . Would love to see your entry !:)”
I quickly re-read the contest rules and discovered that I could still enter by writing about a memory of Canadian Beef. And really, who better to write about “memories of beef” than the daughter of a butcher, someone who ate beef virtually every day of her childhood and adolescence—and who now lives with a meat-eater? Why, none other than moi, of course!
I just couldn’t resist. So here’s my “Best Memories of Beef from My Childhood” entry.
Hoping to see y’all at Eat, Write, Retreat!
* * * * * * * * * * * *
[My dad and me, circa 2000, when he was 78.]
When I was a child, there was never any doubt about who was the boss in our family. With one disappointed glance, my father could cause my heart to ache for days. Conversely, he could also spark days of elation, my heart soaring, when I knew he was pleased with something I’d done.
More than anything, my father was defined by the work he did. He spent six days a week at his little butcher shop on Jean Talon West in the Park Extension area of Montreal, leaving for the store long before we children even woke for school and returning after the rest of the family had finished our dinners. On the odd morning when I couldn’t sleep and the clinking of his coffee mug drew me in the direction of the kitchen, I’d stumble onto a scene of my dad, his windbreaker already zipped up, hunched over the kitchen table sipping his tea and snapping at his toast before he grabbed the lunch bag my mother had prepared and rushed out the door.
On Thursdays and Fridays, when the store was open until 8:00 PM, my younger sister and I were often already in bed when he finally returned home. The other nights, he’d arrive between 6:30 and 8:00 PM, his pant legs smeared with dried blood and the smell of sweat on his shirt, sawdust still clinging to his shoes. He’d go straight to the kitchen table, where my mother dished out the remnants of whatever we’d already eaten for dinner—a dried-up hamburger, veal chops, salmon patties and “potato boats,” or, if his stomach were acting up (as it often did when he felt stress), a bowl of rice and warm milk with honey.
I began to resent that my father never seemed to have much time for us kids when he was home. I learned at a young age that if I wanted to interact with him any day but Sunday, I had to see him at work. Since his store was en route between our house in St. Laurent and the Jean Talon Metro (in those days, the gateway to downtown shopping), my best friends Gemini I, Gemini II and I often dropped in at dad’s store on the way home after a day spent browsing at Simpsons, Eatons, and Ogilvie’s. As eleven or twelve year-olds in those days, the hour-long bus and subway ride was a huge adventure, one our parents allowed without any 21st-Century angst, and a short pit stop at the butcher shop made the trip even more palatable in our minds.
[Jerky in the making: about halfway there.]
As soon as we pushed open the heavy glass door and the bell suspended above it announced our arrival, my father would stop what he was doing, wipe his palms on his apron and point in my direction. “Ah, it’s Rick!” he’d declare, like an emcee calling out the team captain skating onto the ice at the Forum. Then he began to crow. He would boast to whomever was around—Mrs. Lubov (one of the rich customers) as she placed her weekend order; or Vasili, the owner of the Greek bakery down the way; or Joe, the hobo who always seemed to be sitting on the plastic stool in the corner no matter the day or time, as if he were a permanent store mascot in the window. “This is my middle daughter,” my father would say, “she’s going to be a Professor.” The customers nodded and smiled, the way parents do when their three year-old proffers an imaginary teacup.
Within seconds, my friends and I were ushered to the back of the store behind the counter, between the freezer and wooden cutting block where the floor was cushioned with sawdust to absorb drips, grease and bloodstains from the meat. We knew the drill: we sat quietly on the old kitchen chairs against the wall until the store emptied out, whether it took 5, 10 or 25 minutes for my father to finish up with any customers who were waiting. Then he turned his attention to us.
“Okay, so what do you want to eat?” he’d ask with audible delight, as our eyes lit up with anticipation. He’d grab two Kaiser rolls from under the counter. Gemini I always asked for something unassuming like sliced turkey, but I’d go for my favorite, Montreal Smoked meat (made from Canadian Beef, of course). My father would slice the hunk of preternaturally pink flesh, its outside sheathed in a coating of slick black peppercorns softened by the smoking process, the thin sheets sliding out from beneath the swirling blade and onto his outstretched palm. With the rhythm of a dancer, he’d turn his hand over and slap each slice onto the open roll until he’d achieved a pile almost as thick as one of my school textbooks. Then he’d march into the freezer and pull out the jar of mustard he kept there for his own lunches, smear the meat with the yellow topping, and replace the rest of the roll over it.
[My dad on his 89th birthday, last year.]
The sandwiches were always too big for our gaping mouths no matter how wide we tried to open them, so we’d withdraw a few slices and eat them plain before turning back to the rest of the meal. When we were done, if we were still hungry (and even if we weren’t), my father would treat each of us to a piece of karnatzel, the long, cigar-shaped, spicy salami that hung suspended from hooks above the meat counter, drying out in the air and sweating drops of pink-tinged oil on the ground beneath them. With one snap of the thin log, we were each handed a hunk of the stuff to savor for another few minutes. The meat was crunchy, chewy and spicy, and I loved it back then.
With thanks and a pat on the back of the head, we headed out to the bus and the long ride home.
What I didn’t realize in those days, of course, was that my father’s absence at home grew from his desire to provide for his family, and in the store, he was expressing his love for me in the only way he knew how—by giving me food, the spoils of his labor. When I arrived for my occasional visits at the shop, I offered him the chance not only to show me off to his customers, but also to show me how he spent his days making a living.
Even though I don’t eat meat any more, I miss the times when I could drop in on my dad and observe him in his element; where he felt confident, efficient, capable and strong. These days, he struggles to regain his former vigor as his body ages even while his mind remains sharp and vibrant. I watch my elderly dad slowly shuffling across the hallway from bedroom to kitchen, where he hunches over the same kitchen table of my childhood, slowly cutting his dinner into small, manageable pieces.
These days, beef is scarce on his own plate, too. But the memories of those idyllic afternoons in the shop, when my father was still the boss of our house and king of the butcher shop, will forever remain in my heart. And with that memory, it still soars.
[Wouldn’t you just love a bite?]
** For all you non-Ontario residents out there, the popular President’s Choice brand offers a line of sauces called “Memories Of. . . “
Veggie-Based, Gluten Free, Soy Free “Beef” Jerky
This recipe is my tribute to the karnatzel in my dad’s shop, with a taste and texture very much like the spicy, chewy meat I remember. Don’t be deterred by the long ingredient list–this comes together very quickly and then sits in the oven while you can do other things.
These strips would make a great snack on the road, as, once they’re dried, they will keep for a long time. Having made this recipe twice now, I am convinced that it would be even better in a dehydrator. However, if you don’t have one, this oven method still produces a pretty stellar result.
1 medium beet, peeled and cut in chunks (about 4 oz/110 g unpeeled or 3.5 oz/95 g peeled)
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in chunks(about 3.5 oz or 95 g unpeeled, or 3 oz/85 g peeled)
1/2 small onion, cut in chunks
1 large clove garlic
2 Tbsp (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil, preferably organic
1 Tbsp (15 ml) Bragg’s liquid aminos, tamari or soy sauce (use coconut aminos for a soy-free version)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) finely ground flax seeds or meal
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) apple cider vinegar
1/4 tsp (1 ml) liquid smoke (optional)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) old-fashioned whole rolled oats (not instant or quick cook)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) potato starch (not flour)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) tapioca starch
1/4 tsp (1 ml) onion powder
1/4 tsp (1 ml) dried fennel
1/4 tsp (1 ml) dried mustard
1/4 tsp (1 ml) 3-4 fresh sage leaves or 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) dried sage
1/4 tsp (1 ml) paprika (or smoked paprika, if you don’t use liquid smoke)
1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine sea salt, or less, to your taste
Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Line a 9-inch (22.5 cm) square pan and a cookie sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until very smooth–there should be no pieces visible. It will take some time, about 5 minutes, and you will have to scrape the sides several times, but eventually the veggies will release their juices and it will come together in a sort of paste, like this:
Spread the paste over the parchment in the pan, taking care not to extend the mixture beyond the edges of the parchment. Bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is dry. Remove from oven and lower heat to 325 F ( C).
Invert a wooden (or other heatproof) cutting board over the pan and flip the jerky and parchment onto it. Peel off the parchment and cut the square into strips about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide (the crinkly texture you see in the photos is due to the parchment paper wrinkling as the jerky mixture bakes). Place them on the parchment-lined cookie sheet and return to the oven for about 30 more minutes, until the strips are dried out but still flexible. If some of the strips dry out faster than others, remove those first and allow the rest to keep baking until they all reach the desired texture. Allow to cool completely before eating. Store, covered in the refrigerator, up to 3 days. Makes about 8 strips.
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