Folks like us wonder, 'Where's the beef?'

As a veteran of nigh onto a decade of institutional food designed purposely by nutritionists for the palates of the elderly, I'll have to stay with my first impression when, as an entering freshman, I pulled up to table and realized what the word "dismay" really means. I said at the time that the food was excellent, but then they cook it.

This, as a broad statement of fact, needs amplification, as it is not exactly as true as it may be funny. The cooks who have prepared the delicacies at which I have shuddered have all been competent and able, and have performed with skill and determination, Management and public disinterest are to blame more than lack of care with funnels and gobbets. I expect we codgers might have less to growl about if the kitchens were less institutionally proficient and the cooks were allowed to bake a pot of decent beans.

There are several things to consider.

First of all, and don't you forget it, we grumpy seniors are paying enough to have the best. These places don't come cheap, and for our monthly checks we should not get too many flannel steaks and too much superannuated roast lamb. It would be well to buy better than to force the kitchen into embarrassment.

And I am not writing about any one place; this prevails the country over, and back of it is no more than the simple explanation that a stumble-bum meal is considered plenty good enough for the old folks. The cook can be human and contrite, but management knows the aged diner is stuck with it, and it costs too much to move.

But my theme this happy morning is chipped dried beef, of which we get a great none whatsoever. Several times we've suggested chipped beef to our good cook, but none has appeared.

Let us admit that chipped dried beef is not something the gods on Olympus will clamor for rather than nectar and ambrosia, and it has seldom been the main course at a Waldorf banquet, but it is a dish that proves lesser dainties can be made nourishing and tasty and a lot of us grew up with it.

Libby, McNeil & Libby of Chicago was the first corporate name I heard about, and their product came in a drinking glass with a tin cover. That it was cheap was no great drawback, because everything was cheap then. It is no longer cheap. The label now says, "Product of Argentina" and it comes in plastic. Indeed, you can get it frozen and already in its white sauce.

Probably that sauce is a béchamel, but my mother never knew that. She melted butter, added flour, whisked, and put milk in it, thinking she was fixing a hearty but frugal Down East supper for a hungry family. She knew the dried beef would take care of salt, but she put in some pepper.

Then she added some chopped hard-boiled eggs. The chipped beef had soaked in water overnight, partly to render it tractable and partly to float out some salt. Last of all, it would be chopped and put in a serving bowl, the sauce poured on, and she'd hand the bowl to one of her youngsters while another opened the shed door and yelled, "Supper's on!"

We didn't get this on fancy toast points or on the notorious Army crackers. We had it on boiled early rose potatoes, a summer variety that was ready to dig about green pea time. They had red skins that burst in cooking and it was customary to steam them on top of a pot of shelled green peas being cooked for the same simple country supper. The early rose was a mealy potato, amenable to a dousing of creamed chipped beef. Concomitant, a pan of buttermilk cream-tartar biscuits was in the oven.

An early rose potato was anointed with creamed chipped beef. We also got a ladle of green peas, a hot biscuit, and a saucer of comb honey. We made do in a happy family fashion while our mother kept saying, "Why do you heathens gulp and gobble so? Can't you eat like ladies and gentlemen?"

I think you'll find most of our old folks remember chipped beef as I do, a sustaining nourishment with a sentimental flavor. I think most of our incarcerated gracious ladies here can tell you how to fix it, as I have, and will add, as I do, that they'd like to tuck some away once more.

I don't want to leave this gastronomic subject without due attention to the glass tumbler in which dried beef came. We didn't buy dried beef to get tumblers, but now that we had one it came in handy.

My mother made a lot of jelly, and over the years put a lot of it away in the preserve cellar in dried-beef glasses. There was a "sky hook" in the kitchen, over the sink shelf, where the jelly bag hung for draining, and from spring until snow flew it was dripping with the seasonable harvests.

On the back of the stove was a tall can of paraffin wax always ready to be pulled forward to heat and melt, the sealing for jelly tumblers. Anybody going down cellar had to carry down some new jelly to put on the shelves until winter need. So the dried beef glasses showed up again in rotation, now with early strawberry jam, and then with late wild grape jelly. Mother would send me down for a glass of peach marmalade and she'd say, "It's in a chipped-beef glass by the plums."

Mother would say, "Use it up, make it do, wear it out," and my father believed that if you kept a thing 17 years you'd find a use for it.

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