Fine dining on Uncle Sam~

Uncle Same

In the mail today I received my Income Tax refund check. Hooray!

“But Mark, what does that have to do with food?”

This blog, for as much as it is about food, and Italian food at that, is also about the experience of food. I didn’t write my book or develop my APP only to bring you recipes. I wanted to share with you my experiences with food, so they would reignite the story of food in your life. My mantra of “bring your family to the table and change a life one meal at a time” is not just about an easy, simple Italian recipe. It is about the whole life experience around the event of preparing, serving and eating that recipe.

Back to my check from Uncle Sam~

When I was growing up, going out for dinner was an extravagance. It was something that rarely happened, if at all, during a given year – except for one day: income tax check day!

The arrival of that particular check in the mail, usually in early May, meant that we would be going out to dinner – a nice dinner – a FANCY dinner, where all of us kids were given free reign to order whatever we wished for dinner. Yes, it was an Uncle Sam Culinary Christmas!

I grew up in farm country north of Chicago, practically Wisconsin (when you meet me you won’t hear a “da Bears!” Chicago accent, I definitely sound like I am from “WisCAHNsin”), where a fancy meal means that the building does not have a drive-thru window, the interior lighting is low and enhanced with tea candles, and the tables have white tablecloths – fabric tablecloths – and not plastic, shiny, easy-to-clean checkerboard table coverings.

For us Andres in Richmond, ILL (yes, still a three letter state abbreviation at that time), was as fancy as what I could imagine dining at the Eiffel Tower must have been like. Well, the name did sound French at the time.  PLUS, when you walked in, on your left, there was a fish tank, which contained the live fish selections.

Oh the decorative joy in watching your meal swim before your very eyes. And the even bigger pleasure of having it prepared and brought to your table, no longer recognizable as the foyer entertainment. I am not sure that the same interest and joy would be true if a steakhouse offered a view of the meat locker as you entered – hmm, or a petting pen for the kids with a cow before it became a steak. I won’t even mention veal! A fish tank seems more void of emotion – hard to pet a guppie!

My father ordered steak, my one sister fried shrimp (I don’t remember what my brother or youngest sister ordered), my mom either the filet mignon or the lobster tail, but I always ordered the “Surf n’ Turf.”

The name “Surf n’ Turf” sounded so exotic to me. A small filet mignon cooked medium-rare and one lobster tail, cracked open, accompanied with a dish of melted butter suspended over a candle flame to keep it warm. (Hmm, thinking back on that now – it explains a lot. I love dishes now – Ha!)

There was something so exotic about walking into Andres, standing at the tank, and figuring out which of those clawed bad boys was going to end up on my plate. I always tried to pick the ugly lobster, leaving the more attractive ones in the tank to entertain the other customers. What makes a lobster attractive? No clue, but at the time, I must have had some “fashion” guidelines. Maybe it was the flick of an antenna that caught my eye as entertaining and worth sparing – who knows?

The rest of our dining experience at Andres is lost in the blur of my childhood.

I will say that, upon our exit after dinner, I always made sure that the lobster I had sentenced to meet his maker when standing at the tank at the beginning of my evening, was no longer in the tank. I did not want to be gypped out of my position as “the hanging judge!” (“The boiling judge” may be a more accurate description in this case, but alas~)

So every time Uncle Sam sends me a tax return check, I am instantly standing in front of that tank in Andres. And what will I do tonight for dinner, now that I am a lifetime away from that fish tank?

I think Richard and I will go to have sushi tonight. That seems as exotic to me now as Andres did to me in my youth.

Buon Appetitto!


**Sadly, Andres is no longer open in Richmond. Maybe for the best, as going back to see the real thing is never as fantastic as one’s memory of the real thing!