Friday, December 29, 2017

Steak in Sister Carrie // Cook Your Books


In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. And it turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This eleventh installment is a book set in Illinois.



Oh, Desire. With a capital "D." There you are. Haunting around Chicago and New York (and their restaurants) in this old chestnut from the turn of the century.

I picked up Sister Carrie in the Chicago History Museum gift shop while I was wiling away some time before catching my plane from O'Hare back to San Francisco. I needed a book set in Illinois, and there was no way I was going to write about one of my most loathed books Augie March (with apologies to my father-in-law, who is a big fan) or about the meat exposé The Jungle (a great book, but it seemed, well, a bit inappropriate for a food blog). I thought about going to two books that I love: Native Son and House on Mango Street, but I have read both already, and I wanted to explore something new to me.  So I considered some more contemporary books (including Then We Came to the End and I Sailed with Magellan), but then there she was, our heroine Carrie, staring at me from the Penguin paperback, and I had a four-hour flight in front of me. And so, that is how we landed on this eleventh chapter of Cook Your Books.



Okay, for those of you who have never read Sister Carrie, or just need a refresher from your high school days, this Theodore Dreiser book was published in 1900 to the weak reception of only 456 copies sold. In a coming-of-age, American dream tale straight out of the history books, Carrie Meeber leaves behind the doldrums of Columbia City, Wisconsin, boards a train (with "a small lunch in a paper box," no less (1)), and lands in Chicago, home of numbing jobs, cold winds, a disapproving sister, middle-class heartthrobs, and a ticket to fame and (comparative) fortune. Of course, on said train from small town America to the big city, innocent and naive Carrie meets the dashing and urbane traveling salesman Charles Drouet, who leans forward and offers Carrie familiarity with an overwhelming city and assistance as she disembarks the train (and, oh so much more). Of course, ever the proper Midwestern maiden, she refuses, disembarks alone (but under Drouet's watchful eye), moves into her sister's home, and takes a tedious and coarse job. 



However, Carrie gets sick, loses her job, and happens to encounter Drouet on a downtown street, of course. Because Carrie is a looker straight out of provincial dairyland, he takes her to a fancy restaurant--the Windsor Room (which can still be found in Chicago, here)--and over sirloin and potatoes, he convinces her to take $20 for new clothes, and eventually to leave her sister and move in with him. That seems fast. But let's slow down and take a closer look.

Previously, when Carrie was out searching for a job, she had entered into a restaurant with prices so high that all she could order was a bowl of soup (21). Thus, restaurants seem fraught for her; they are places of exclusion and consumption. They are reminders of what she desires but cannot have. The Windsor Room is "a large, comfortable place, with an excellent cuisine and substantial service" (61). It is, for Drouet, a place "to see and be seen as he dined" (61) and he is completely at home here among its pageantry and wealth. But, Carrie is overwhelmed and full of desire: "She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (62).  But Drouet has no worry about the prices, and he quickly commands the situation, ordering sirloin with mushrooms ($1.25), stuffed tomatoes, hashed brown potatoes, asparagus, and a pot of coffee.


I, on the other hand, served my steak with sweet potato fries and creamed broccoli rabe.

And oh how Drouet becomes more attractive over that meal:
Drouet fairly shone in the matter of serving. He appeared to great advantage behind the white napery and silver platters of the table and displaying his arms with a knife and fork. As he cut the meat his rings almost spoke. His new suit creaked as he stretched to reach the plates, break the bread, and pour the coffee. He helped Carrie to a rousing plateful and contributed the warmth of his spirit to her body until she was a new girl. He was a splendid fellow in the true popular understanding of the term, and captivated Carrie completely. 
That little soldier of fortune took her good turn in an easy way. She felt a little out of place, but the great room soothed her and the view of the well-dressed throng outside seemed a splendid thing. Ah, what was it not to have money! What a thing it was to be able to come in here and dine! Drouet must be fortunate. He rode on trains, dressed in such nice clothes, was so strong, and ate in these fine places. He seemed quite a figure of a man, and she wondered at his friendship and regard for her. (63)


There he is in all that finery and abundance and pageantry (seeing and being seen, particularly by Carrie), and he comes out all the better. She notices that his suit is new, he wields cutlery in such a way it draws attention to his body, his rings almost speak. In this moment, he is the promise of Chicago: American. Masculine. Wealthy. Comfortable. Urbane. Generous. It's no wonder she's willing to take the "two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills" (66) he later presses into her palm. As out of place she feels in the gleaming Windsor room, he impresses her with his ease with money and with the city. He is all she desires to be, all that she longed for back in Columbia City, Wisconsin. And all of this done over a hearty, American meal of steak and potatoes. This is it, the American Dream. And the longing for wealth and ease.

So she, our sin-loving sister, moves in with him. How can a country girl resist? But then Drouet introduces her to George Hurstwood, who is ever more dashing than Drouet (it just might be his healthy employment as the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, a saloon in Chicago). And isn't that just it? The American Dream, Dreiser suggests, is something we touch on, but then we want more. We desire and then we desire and then we desire.



Thus, Hurstwood and Carrie begin a flirtation that turns into more, despite Hurstwood being married (a small detail he fails to mention to Carrie). Through a series of events (most of which include Drouet being humanly incapable of letting people down and always wanting to look a bit more debonair and sophisticated than he is), Carrie ends up on the stage of the Elks Club theater.

The next day, all hell breaks loose: Drouet learns of the affair, as does Hurstwood's wife, and Carrie learns that Hurstwood has a wife. Heavy drinking (on Hurstwood's part) ensues, as does a bit of thievery from an unlocked safe at Hurstwood's employer's, and a lie to Carrie lures her onto a train, and both Carrie and Hurstwood abscond in the middle of the night to the wilds of Montreal. A guilty conscience leads to Hurstwood returning most of the money but not guilty enough to keep him from committing bigamy (and Carrie agreeing to it) and whisking her away to the even bigger city of New York. 



Oh, New York. You provide more desire than even that burgeoning cow town of Chicago, and Carrie's desire is fueled further by Hurstwood's ability to provide for her, at first, a sumptuously decorated apartment with a view of Central Park and her fancy neighbor, Mrs. Vance. But Hurstwood, who had achieved his wealth through hard work and perseverance, loses it all through his inability to find another manager's job at a reputable saloon. All that desire. All that inability to find contentment.

After some steps down the social ladder, a hiatus on Carrie's and Mrs. Vance's friendship, and a real beating to the pocketbook, Carrie comes across neighbor Mrs. Vance again, who introduces Carrie to her cousin, Robert Ames. And they go out to a fancy dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (sound familiar?) where Ames suggests that there is more to life than a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant. And that something is art.  Let's zero in again (This time Sherry's in New York):

Carrie, down on her luck again, is hyper-aware by the prices on the menu, attuned to what food is worth. Soup is 50¢ or a dollar (which is about $27 in 2017) and entrées cost the same as a night in a hotel:
Carrie noticed [the prices on the menu], and in scanning it the price of spring chicken carried her back to that other bill of fare and far different occasion when, for the first time, she sat with Drouet in a good restaurant in Chicago. It was only momentary — a sad note as out of an old song — and then it was gone. But in that flash was seen the other Carrie — poor, hungry, drifting at her wits' ends, and all Chicago a cold and closed world, from which she only wandered because she could not find work. (335)

And just like that we're transported right back to the Windsor Room, that world that she longed to belong within but did not. Right back to who is included and not, and all of it based on money. But then Ames bursts this reverie:
"Do you know," he said, turning back to Carrie, after his reflection, "I sometimes think it is a shame for people to spend so much money this way." 
Carrie looked at him a moment with the faintest touch of surprise at his seriousness. He seemed to be thinking about something over which she had never pondered.  
"Do you?" she answered, interestedly.  
"Yes," he said, "they pay so much more than these things are worth. They put on so much show." (336-337)

Which, of course recalls Drouet and his love of the Windsor Room, as it was a place to see and be seen.  Ames surprises her that there could be another relationship one could have with money. That maybe there could be something more than having it. And so, our Sister Carrie begins her great awakening. And the end of the book entirely depends on how you read this:
"I shouldn't care to be rich," he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; "not rich enough to spend my money this way."  
"Oh, wouldn't you?" said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.  
"No," he said. "What good would it do? A man doesn't need this sort of thing to be happy."  
Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.  
"He probably could be happy," she thought to herself, "all alone. He's so strong." (339)
Just after this moment she and Ames speak about the theater, and she vows to return to the stage, in part to impress him and in part because he has inspired in her the desire for something more. The juxtaposition of the over-priced meal in a too-fancy restaurant and this purity of art are troubling for Carrie, but she is "beginning to see" (341) Yes, she wants to be seen by Ames, or someone like him, and thus gain his approval. But she also wants more than just pageantry. So, return to the stage she does. And she gains oodles of money as she works her way up from Chorus Girl to Star. And Hurstwood finds himself a scab, driving a Brooklyn streetcar, then abandoned by Carrie, then homeless. He dies alone and unhappy, truly fallen from the pinnacle of the American Dream we saw him embracing early in the novel.



But Carrie's end is also solitary, wanting, and ambiguous. Some argue this ending is tragic. Others, not so much.
Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she should be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world.
Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows.... In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel. (527)

But Carrie ends the book alone, wanting, desiring, and never really in the reach of that "halcyon day" when her dreams have become real. She is going to keep striving, keep desiring for happiness, and from the looks of it never really find it. But let's hold tight for a second. We have a woman who has engaged in a pre-marital affair with a man in Chicago, knowingly committed bigamy with an on-the-lam man in New York, and she leaves both of them for a life of theater. Perhaps, totally ho-hum to the 21st-century reader, but a true scandal for an early 20th-century reader. And (gasp!) she's not punished for these relationship. Let's consider other options for such a woman in 1900. Dreiser could have written her in the hackneyed way where the sinful woman with a heart of gold still has to end in suicide or despair (see Maggie, Girl of the Streets). But no, she sits alone just as Ames suggests, aching for more, yes. But Ames suggested that being alone is actually not so bad. 

Her failure to find happiness in the end has nothing to do with her extra-curricular activities. Instead, that failure to find happiness is wrapped up in that ever-consuming desire to consume. Girlfriend loves money. More than she loves George Hurstwood or Charles Drouet or, one might guess, the stage. 



So, unlike Edith Wharton's Summer (which I wrote about here), wherein the fallen woman gets the apple, this time we get the fallen woman who just desires to consume and consume. Just like any other character in this book. Just like any other man. And she gets the Windsor Room, The Chicago Opera House, the Elks Lodge, Sherry's, and the Broadway stage. Ain't nothing going to keep this consumer down.

P.S.  (Totally a sidenote and not at all related to food in this book.) John Berryman asserted that Dreiser "wrote like a hippopatomus," an apt (and perhaps my favorite) description if ever there was one. While this book is a bit pedantic, it is a great look at early 20th-century Chicago, where one was able to have a full lawn in downtown Chicago. Totally worth any hippo-plodding.






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Marinated Steak from Ad Hoc

"She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (Sister Carrie 61).

Very liberally adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home

Keller does a lot more wonderful things to this steak than we did.  We grilled it, because we live in California and can grill in December. I suspect that basting it in the oven in a very cozy home (say, in Illinois) would be just delightful. As for your cut of meat, use whatever you want. He uses skirt steak. I served this with sweet potato fried and a glorious creamed broccoli rabe, found here.

Yield
4 Steaks

Ingredients

For the Marinade: 
3 sprigs of fresh thyme 
1 long sprig of fresh rosemary 
2 fresh bay leaves 
1½ teaspoons black peppercorns 
3 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on 
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 

For the Steaks: 
24 ounces steak (your choice: Keller uses skirt, but any steak is fine)
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper 
Olive oil 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
4 sprigs of fresh thyme 
2 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on

Instructions
For the Marinade
1. Combine the 3 springs of thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns, 3 garlic cloves, and olive oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let the cool to room temperature. 

2.  Place steaks in a large, shallow dish and cover with the marinade. Cover the dish and marinate for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator (or preferably overnight). Turn the steaks in the marinade half way through the waiting time. Thirty minutes before you are ready to cook the steaks, remove the meat from the marinade and let sit at room temperature. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Discard the marinade. 

For the Steaks
3.  So this is what Keller says to do:  
Preheat oven to 350°F, set roasting rack in a roasting pan. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over high heat. (Have a splatter screen ready.) When the oil shimmers, add half the meat and quickly brown the first side. Turn the meat and, working quickly, add 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 thyme sprigs, and 1 garlic clove, and brown the meat on the second side, basting constantly; the entire cooking process should only take about 1½ minutes. Transfer the meat to the roasting rack and spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the top. Wipe the pan, and repeat with the remaining steaks. Place the baking sheet into the oven and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the steaks rest for about 10 minutes in a warm spot.
4.  Here's what we did:
Grill.    
(Okay, to be more specific, grill for about 8-10 minutes over a medium high heat.) 


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