It’s two weeks since my town of Newtown, Connecticut, was struck with a head-spinning, mind-boggling tragedy of such epic proportion that it still seems unreal. I drove down Main Street last week in an odd, dream-like state; everything around me was off. Colors weren’t quite right; things seemed faded, like they’d been washed by rain. Photographers from all over the country had pitched makeshift media tents on the street in front of St. Rose of Lima Church, where they were perched, ready to take pictures with those light-gray, high-powered telephoto lenses that you see at sporting events. The grief-stricken emerged from the church; shutters snapped in sync. Traffic slowed to a standstill on Church Hill Road. I was sandwiched in my little Subaru between an SUV from Illinois and a pickup truck from Vermont. I could see the other drivers taking pictures with SmartPhones. I just wept and sat there until the traffic moved.
Which I’ve been doing a lot of in the past few days. Weeping; waiting.
That’s fine; the squelching of grief for the sake of staying strong for somebody — who, exactly? — does no one any good. Ever. And the outpouring of love and affection for Newtown from all over the country — all over the world — is deeply meaningful, and continues to be so, as the days pass.
I never did get where I was going last week; I made a U-turn on the little bridge leading into Sandy Hook, and went home, stopping on the way to visit my friend Steve Ford’s market, Butcher’s Best. People were coming in to his new space — he just moved — in droves to place their holiday orders for things like crown roast, tenderloin, and ham. One lady came in, her eyes tired and red, her shy little girl clutching her hand; she stepped behind her mother when I said hello sweetheart.
It’s okay to say hello, her mother said—and happy holidays. But the little girl just stared at the floor while her mother placed her holiday order: a large ham, shank-end; a standing rib roast.
I want it to be beautiful for my family she explained to me, almost guiltily. We made Christmas cookies yesterday, she added, shrugging, acknowledging the effort to restore some sort of semblance of normalcy and cheer. She talked about it like it was suspect and maybe even a little embarrassing.
Were they good? I asked her daughter. She smiled weakly and shook her head. Yes.
My automatic response was to ask the obvious — was she getting ready for Santa, was she looking forward to New Year’s Eve — but those questions seemed totally ridiculous, in the way that the clanging metaphysical noise of the holidays seemed to suddenly be a heartless affront: the television ads hawking new electronic devices, the newspaper circulars begging us to buy buy buy clogging up the mailbox, the vile and vomitatious permutations that suddenly every liquor manufacturing company seems to think is appealing (mommy probably doesn’t want a martini made from Fruit Loop-flavored vodka on New Years’ Eve) — I’ve found it all assaultive and even, dare I say, devilishly punishing. The only positive? Most of us numb ourselves to the marketing onslaught of the season; we don’t let ourselves feel the designed-for-consumers bombardment that begins around the start of November, lest it turn us into Scrooge by Christmas Eve. This year, however, many of us are walking around feeling a whole lot more than we’ve ever felt, and rethinking what we spend and where, and why, and for whom. The value of the season — of being with the people we love, of giving and feeding people from our hearts rather than from our egos, of measuring the moments we spend together in kindness and tenderness rather than the snark and narcissism to which we all, myself very much included, so easily succumb — will be quantified a whole lot differently, I think, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
That afternoon in my friend Steve’s butcher shop, patronized by so many of us from Newtown and Sandy Hook, I found myself stunned at how the shoppers who came in — many of whom were grieving parents and friends of those lost — could find the strength to put one foot in front of the other. Steve, who himself came blisteringly close to unspeakable personal tragedy, patiently sat with them all, and wrote down their special holiday and New Years’ orders in the old-fashioned, black and white hardcover grade school notebooks he favors, each one labeled separately: STANDING RIB, CROWN/PORK, FILLET, LEG OF LAMB, HAM. At first, I was breathless with wonder: how could he keep moving forward? How could his customers manage to continue with the trivialities of the day, while such grief hung in the air like billowing clouds? And then I realized as I watched him sitting there, describing, through a haze of shock and sadness and exhaustion, the exact number of minutes per pound to cook one of his hams or his fillet of beef, or why it’s important to let meat and poultry come to room temperature before roasting it, or why a very good ham, from a pig that’s been raised humanely, processed with care, and cured under a watchful eye, rarely needs a glaze, or anything more than a little bit of horseradish sauce.
I realized what I already knew: that feeding people through joy and withering sadness and celebration and despair is the business of life. It defines us. It’s the way we move forward, and the way we mark our days. It’s the way we nourish ourselves, and our hearts, and the hearts of those we love.
Standing Rib Roast
Standing rib is one of those things that I make exactly once-a-year, if; it’s not exactly what one would call a Poor Man’s Feast. It’s expensive and tends to be on the fatty side, it almost reeks of seasonal excess and is impossible to master. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth (except that it does tend to be fatty, and it is, in fact, expensive, and for a piece of meat that you’re going to have once a year, that’s okay): a good standing rib roast needs little more than salt and pepper, an accurate meat thermometer (not an instant read), and patience. Sides should be simple: hearty greens like kale or chard tossed with garlic and lemon to help cut the meat’s fat is always nice, as are roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.
This year, to mark the beginning of the new year, I will be splurging on a prime roast that is dry aged, from Steve’s shop; there will be just four of us for a quiet dinner, with some good wine and a whole lot of wishes for health, peace, and safety in the days ahead.
Which is exactly what I wish for you.
Special tools needed: oven-proof meat thermometer
Serves 4-6 with leftovers
1 standing rib roast, prime, dry-aged (3 ribs, about 7 pounds)
coarsely ground salt
freshly cracked black pepper
Place the rib roast in a roasting pan, fat side up, drape loosely with foil, and bring to room temperature.
Heat oven to 500 degrees F. Liberally season the beef, insert a meat thermometer between two two ribs, and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Immediately reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F, and continue to roast for 14 minutes per pound without (ever) opening the oven door, or until the thermometer reaches 125-130 degrees F. Remove from oven, place on a meat board with a drain, drape loosely with foil, and let rest undisturbed for 20 minutes before carving.