Western Barbecue Steak

Alright, I know I'm a day late for Memorial Day/Bank Holiday celebrations, but I had a friend in town visiting for the last few days, so you'll have to forgive me. I was thinking as I walked around Old Town here in Edinburgh yesterday that the way the holiday is celebrated in the US could not be more different from the way it's celebrated here. In the US, I don't think I was ever taught that Memorial Day was meant to be a day for remembering the soldiers that have served the country. Growing up, it was always just a day that meant pools, staying up late on Sunday night, and eating lots of watermelon... though later, when I spent my summers in Kentucky, many friends treated it as a day for remembering anyone who had passed away, military or not.

So fast forward to living here in Scotland, where there are ceremonies, moments of silence, church services and specific prayer times, and it's a little tough to reconcile the two versions of the holiday as an expat. On my second UK day of memorial, here's a little bit about Wilbur, Eleanor's husband, and my grandfather, who usually gets glossed over on this blog and in my life.

Wilbur died years before I was born, so all I've ever known about him is gleaned from the scant stories my mom rarely tells... but in the process of starting this site, going through old family artifacts, and trying to learn as much as I can about him, I've stumbled upon some interesting facts.

Wilbur was a joker from the start-- his friends thought Eleanor ruined him by taming his wild side, but people always say that about wives and I think it's probably an unfair statement. As I've grown older and learned more about his childhood, it strikes me that his life was hard, and the fact that he can make jokes at all is nothing short of a miracle: Wilbur was the oldest in his family, and when his dad was gassed during World War I and never recovered from the shellshock, it was Wilbur who abandoned the prospects of a full-ride golf scholarship to college and dropped out of high school in 9th grade to take care of his family. His lack of education didn't stop him from providing for his family-- he worked a series of mostly blue-collar jobs throughout his life that put food on the table even if it wasn't a lot. His red hair was a great source of pride for both himself and Eleanor (though I always picture him as a blond because I've only ever seen two colour photos of him).

I picture him having a strong sweet tooth, but I don't know why I think that; the only things I know about his preferences in food are that he only ate apple pie with a slice of cheese on top, and that he always used toast smeared with grape jelly to mop up the runny yolks of his fried eggs. My mom used to tell me those facts when I was a kid and being picky about my food touching, and I would squeal in disgust... though nowadays, the apple pie thing sounds pretty epic.

Wilbur was the inventor of the dad joke. Phrases like “Hi, hungry, I'm Wilbur!” and “If your knee hurts when you rub it, then don't rub it!” were his trademarks, and I grew up with my mom parroting them to me once removed: “I'm hungry,” I'd moan, and she'd reply (every time) “You know what Wilbur would say!” and I'd roll my eyes at her the same way she probably did at him.

Wilbur fought in the Pacific during World War II, which started when he was 24, and he wrote long letters to Eleanor throughout his service. He looked goofy in his uniform and he hated being at sea because he was lonely and hot, and he wrote little rhyming poems about “that ol' Hirohito” that he would send back to Eleanor in crabbed handwriting, written in pencil on his ship before curfew.

Wilbur and Eleanor married in 1942, and were childless until my mom's older brother was born over a decade later. During that time, they lived in Brooklyn where Wilbur worked as a cab driver (my favourite photo of him is his cabbie license). Eventually, he opened a gas station with a friend of his, and left the taxi business for good... until one day when he decided that their car needed a paint job, so he bought himself a can of yellow paint and painted his car with a paintbrush. The resulting paint job was (by all accounts) terrible, and Eleanor threw a fit because people on the sidewalk would try to hail her for a ride everywhere she went... which I'm sure Wilbur found hilarious.

The things I know about him are none of them related to his service in the US Navy, but I can only imagine how that experience must have shaped his own life (as well as Eleanor's, who agreed to marry him via a letter she wrote to him while he was on a ship bound for the Philippines). I'm grateful for the people like him, both in the US and abroad, who fight to make their countries into better places, and I'm proud to have a grandfather like him, even if I never got the chance to know him.

So, in honour of Wilbur, a high-school dropout, a sailor, a husband, a father, and a relocated Yankee, here's a steak recipe. Make it on the grill this summer and be grateful for your family.

The verdict:

The flavour on these steaks is amazing. There's no single ingredient that shines out from the rest, the overall taste is just rich and flavourful without overpowering the steak itself. We made them in the oven, under the broiler because we live in a country that rarely reaches temperatures higher than 16C, but if you have a grill, make these on it and enjoy them with a cold beer as you eat outside on a picnic table... and know that somewhere far away, a couple of Scottish expats are highly jealous.

A sincere question: do any of you have any idea if Heinz still makes chili sauce? It's the only brand that popped up on my Googling, but I've never seen a bottle of it anywhere in the US, much less over here.

The recipe:

Western Barbecue Steak


Mix together all ingredients except steak and let marinade rest for at least 10 minutes.
Place steak in shallow dish and pour marinade over it.
Marinate at least 30 minutes at room temperature, turning steak halfway through to ensure thorough coating on both sides.
Drain excess marinade and grill or broil 6 inches from heat source until just warm throughout.

Yields 6 servings.

the ingredients:

¼ c vegetable oil
½ c sweet onion, chopped
¼ c prepared horseradish
3 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp chili sauce (I used Tabasco)
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 sirloin steaks, 1-inch thick (½ lb each)