Steak frites, one of the simplest of all French dishes, is just a piece of beef and fries. Whenever I see steak frites on a menu, I usually order it, because I’ve loved it ever since I spent my junior year in Strasbourg, France. At that time, I had steak frites a few times in the student restaurant, where it was cheap but still very satisfying, one of my warmest food memories.
Celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary at Adorn Bar & Restaurant at Chicago’s Four Seasons hotel, we wanted to try some of the items from their new spring menu (we did, and they were fantastic), but I also wanted to get an order of the steak frites. The steak was USDA prime, perfectly prepared, and the fries were cut in-house and sprinkled with herbs, just wonderful. Though it was very delicious, it didn’t hit the right nostalgia buttons for me – not that I expected it to, because it hardly ever does. I learned to appreciate this dish when it was prepared in the second- or third-rate student restaurant in Strasbourg, and that dry, almost leathery meat is what I usually want to taste again.
Sometimes we tend toward the stuff we had when we were younger to the exclusion of stuff that is, objectively considered, better. Case in point: my friend Patrick, a trained chef, once took a gig as the cook at a sorority house. He made a mac n’ cheese for the girls with a few different types of high-quality cheese and pasta, done just right. The sorority girls hated it. What they wanted was Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, because that’s what they had when they were even younger, and that mediocre version of the classic dish hit all the right buttons for them.
Ketchup is a fine condiment, and I can remember having it on French fries, perhaps even hot dogs (gasp!) when I was in single digits. Over the past thirty years, I’ve sampled many cheffy house-made ketchups, and none of them compares to Heinz, which as the great Bourdain explained in 2016, “Try to find a house-made ketchup that’s better than the platonic idea of ketchup, which is the same cheap ketchup you always had.”
Steve Dolinsky, in his book Pizza City, USA, presents the concept of PIGUE, or Pizza I Grew Up Eating, which is the theory that we love the first pizzas we ever had and that those first bites of pie become the standard by which all others will be judged. There has been an explosion of interest in pizza over the years, intensified by the pandemic-inspired impulse to take delivery while sequestering at home. There are many, many different types of pizza in Chicago, and we’ve had some highly refined versions. When I’m just eating for the love of food, however, I’m going for the Pizza I Grew Up Eating: tavern style, cracker thin crust, grid cut, slightly sweet tomato sauce, without too much cheese. Not long ago, we ordered a pizza from an Oak Park purveyor (name withheld), and it was all I usually want in pizza, and ketchup, and steak frites. It may not have been the very best, but it’s what I grew up eating. And I like it.