As I delivered a Greek salad to table twenty-two, I pulled a large brass pepper grinder out from under my arm and offered to pulverize its contents for the benefit of the woman who ordered it. When she declined, I tucked it back into the white, no-iron cotton sheath of my armpit.
My actions were noticed by Frank, one of our more amusing regulars who was standing just behind me, drinking perhaps his second Manhattan of the evening. He jumped as if goosed by my moulin à poivre, as the French might call it. Although often tempted, in the seventeen years I’d worked in a Greek restaurant, I had yet poke anyone with the device, let alone learn the correct Hellenic term for it.
“Hey! Watch your Rubirosa!” Frank exclaimed in mock alarm.
“You know, I may very well be the only person working here who knows what the hell you’re talking about,” I answered, proud that I had, in fact, gotten the reference.
“Why the fuck do you think I said it to you?” he muttered as he sipped his drink.
I really do miss that man.
For the rest of the evening, I felt absurdly self-conscious every time I waggled a pepper mill over anyone’s food. Each time, the cold, hard metal turned to hot, turgid flesh in both my imagination and my increasingly sweaty palms. On one occasion, I nearly giggled in the presence of four women as if I were a nine year-old laughing at a fart joke in front of my mother’s bridge club. I needed to get a better grip on my professionalism. And on the pepper mill, which I worried might slip out of my hands.
Porfirio Rubirosa was Dominican diplomat from the Mid-20th century. His interests were very much in line with most other international playboys of the time: polo, auto racing, and having sex with lots and lots of women, like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Jayne Mansfield. Of his five wives, two were American heiresses: Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. Both of them gave him B-25 bombers as well as many other items of value in their divorce settlements. He was, to put it mildly, extremely popular with heterosexual females. Perhaps it was his Caribbean charm. Or perhaps it was the fact that his member was reported to have put his polo ponies to shame. His friends referred to him as “Toujours Prêt” because it was always ready to go. His reputation was such that Parisian waiters began calling their oversized pepper grinders “Rubirosas”.
I’m so glad we’re finally clear on this.
Now is the point I should add that, at this very same Greek restaurant, there is another Rubirosa-esque item on offer: a 21-ounce bone-in ribeye steak, which is really far too much meat for any one person to tackle alone. Presenting such a slab of beef would occasionally produce gasps from unsuspecting diners, both male and female. As good as it is, I’ve never understood the allure of dealing with one by one’s self, but people do it all the time. Perhaps it’s the thrill of a challenge. I’ve been seduced into attempting it on one or two occasions, but sensibly found myself subscribing to the Rodney Allen Rippy school of thought: It’s too big to eat. Having that much meat inside of you all at once is unhealthy, four out of five doctors will tell you, and can lead to great internal distress. If you’re wondering about the fifth doctor, he’s probably in the pocket of the US Beef Council.
It isn’t my job to judge you if you enjoy your steak and your pepper mills well endowed. Judgement’s more like my hobby, really. I used to be like you, but age, experience, and my cardiologist have changed me. In these matters, the question of size is more like a question of taste, I think. And I, for one, prefer my meat more demurely proportioned.
Steak au Poivre
Now this is what I consider a very approachable recipe. And for those of you who enjoy pepper but harbor deep inside of you a great terror of oversized pepper mills, it may be positively liberating. Modest meat meets Tellicherry zing.
Serves two reasonable people or one size queen.
• 2 6-ounce filet mignon steaks, about 2 inches thick
• 2 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 decorously-proportioned shallot, finely minced
• 1 ½ cups of beef broth
• 1 seemly glug of cognac
• ¼cup of heavy cream
• a smattering of finely chopped parsley for appearances’ sake
• oh, and salt
- If you can think this far ahead, tenderly massage your meat with salt, then place in the protective sheath of your choosing and refrigerate. Remove the meat about a half hour before cooking to bring closer to room temperature.
- Crank your oven up to 450°F.
- Take a clean tea towel and place it on your cutting board. In the center, place 2 tablespoons of whole peppercorns. Fold one end of the towel over the other, making a safe pouch for the soon to be humiliated spice. Take a reasonably proportioned, heavy bottomed cast iron pan and bring it down upon the swaddled peppercorns with enthusiasm several times in quick succession until they are sufficiently crushed or your downstairs neighbor wonders very loudly in unrepeatably scurvy language just what it is you are doing to make such a racket. Remove the pepper from its wrappings and rub vigorously into the meat.
- Place the same skillet over a high heat and wait until it’s almost as hot as the women at Jimmy’s Disco in Paris were for Mr. R. before lubricating the pan with one tablespoon of butter. Add the steaks and let them sizzle for about two minutes to give them a good, dark crust on one side. Turn them over and do the same to the other. Toss the pan in the oven to continue cooking until the desired temperature is reached. You will sense when your meat is ready by frequently poking it with your finger. Remove the pan from the oven, setting it back on the stove top. Remove and cover the steaks to let rest until needed again.
- Toss the second tablespoon of butter in the pan and swirl it around, making certain to use some sort of barrier between the skin of your hand and the pan’s handle. Remember: it’s been in the bloody oven.
- Add shallots and cook until just starting to brown, then add the beef broth and let simmer. Add the cognac. If you enjoy drama, tilt the pan slightly towards the stove’s fire until there is an impressive burst of flame leaping up from inside the skillet, which is all the more alarming because you chose to perform this stunt on the side of the stove next to where you keep your rather flammable cookbooks. If you prefer a more relaxed form of cooking, just let the liquid reduce by roughly half. Add the cream and cook until slightly thickened. Add parsley, if you bother to remember.
- Return the somewhat more-relaxed-than-you steaks to the pan to coat with sauce. Serve on a platter the size of which you find satisfactory and non-threatening, and jettison the pan’s hot effluence on top. Serve with shoestring potatoes, which I am not telling you how to make and enjoy. In moderation, of course.