Religion has a few simple benefits. By regularly attending a place of worship, one gains not only a sense of deep, abiding faith, but a clearer understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Families that observe religious traditions together make it through tough times together. So I hear, and so I fervently believe, even though I was raised an agnostic.
What, then, is the wellspring of faith in my family?
Simple. Morton's of Chicago.
The service has never been more moving and inspirational than it was at Morton's one night last week. My husband, my father and I communed over whiskey martinis, three pounds of onion bread, eighteen raw oysters, one Caesar salad and three New York strips, medium-rare. We emerged feeling spiritually uplifted and ready to tackle the six weeks that will elapse before our next regularly scheduled session of steak worship.
The people who know we do this accuse us of being indulgent. Little do they realize how carefully we are following in the footsteps of world religions. All of them.
Like the Amish, we have streamlined our rituals over the years until they are simple, predictable and soothing. Like members of the 700 Club, we pour a huge percentage of our yearly income into our religion. Like Jews at Passover, we conduct many of our prayers while sitting around a table with our mouths full. Like Tibetan Buddhists, we can narrow our concentration until one natural object comes to symbolize all that is beautiful--a drop of rain on a flower, for example. Except that in this instance, it's the looming pile of aged, marbled, weighty steaks that sits on the tiled counter next to Morton's enormous grill. Look at that long enough, and each steak becomes imbued with dharma. Karma. Nirvarma.
I'll tell you how this started. Since as far back as I can remember, my father and my sister Jenny have conducted their most mundane business--walking down a sidewalk, mailing a letter, blowing a nose--under the assumption that if they make every move exactly right, THEY will cause a shower of lucre to fall from the sky. Who are THEY? Beats me, but THEY are watching. Go left around the fire hydrant, push the right side of the revolving door, step on exactly half the cracks, and bam! Jackpot!
My sister Marina rejected all this voodoo in favor of a bacon-based religion she calls The Rashers. I appreciated her courage, particularly in leaving her cholesterol count in the hands of her porcine gods.
In my search for meaning, though, I gravitated toward ancient Greece--Dionysus, specifically--and another animal altogether. It has been my experience that if I turn over a big chunk of any financial windfall to Morton's of Chicago, Dionysus will be pleased by the hedonism and reckless abandon of it all, and I will be rewarded.
An example: My auto-insurance company sent me a rebate check of $145. I spent $110 of it taking a friend to dinner at Morton's. (Caveat: This works better if the friend has never been to Morton's, ergo, has never really eaten a good steak.) Five days later a mechanic unaccountably changed my oil for free, I made an unlooked-for $78 selling books at a Kiwanis Club, and I found myself at Jax Fish House, enjoying oyster shooters paid for by my boss. I call this chain of events a sacrifice to Dionysus. If I had stayed home eating spaghetti with Food Club marinara sauce--well, it doesn't bear thinking about.
The other way to placate Dionysus is to have my father take me to Morton's. This can be accomplished by calling him up and saying, "Hey, can we go to Morton's?" An equal-opportunity eater, he has spent a good deal of time worshiping bacon with Marina. But when it comes to making a major sacrifice, there's nothing like a sacred cow.
This is not to say that our family's faith in Morton's has never been shaken. In the past year we've flirted with the Infidel. What else can you do when you're living in a city full of steakhouses, on the edge of the Great American cattle-clogged Plains? What if one of these new joints contained a more powerful messiah of some kind?
At first I thought I saw a glimmer of this in the creamed spinach at Ruth's Chris Steak House. It's really good creamed spinach, but upon reflection, I realized it's no miracle. And the waitstaff cut our steaks for us, which made us feel like toddlers. The Palm, which is full of caricatures of famous media people--none of whom, somehow, are me--has a good steak, I guess, and it's very expensive, which Dionysus likes. But it's not a great steak, and the restaurant's ambience is as antiseptic as that of a suburban Bennigan's.
My emotional bond to Morton's atmosphere dates back to December 7, 1989, when I had just given birth to a girl and reached my dad at Morton's with the news. Over the phone line, I could hear the subtle clink and scrape of the steak knife, the subtle pop of fork through prize flesh.
Between the two of us, my father and I have checked out all the pretenders to the meaty throne and have never seriously considered switching churches. We did not find a better steak anywhere. We did--the meals weren't a total loss--come away knowing more about what is right and what is wrong.
What is wrong: to pressure customers into ordering a whole supporting cast of extras--potatoes, bacon-wrapped scallops, asparagus with hollandaise, beefsteak tomatoes, a make-ahead dessert. (The Morton's waiters never seem surprised to hear "New York strip, medium-rare. A half-dozen oysters on the half shell. That's it." You never get any of this, "Can I interest you in a marinated mushroom, ma'am?" crap from them.)
What is right: a Kentucky martini. Morton's makes it with Maker's Mark whiskey.
The drape of the thick white tablecloth.
Saying "no" to the presentation Morton's waiters will give you if you let them. This offering involves your waiter holding up a potato and saying, "This is a potato."
Saying "yes" to New York strip, medium-rare. The smell of that steak as it alights on your table. The perfect black crust. The salty, juicy red ooze of it. (Hint to girls: Dab some behind each ear.) The prospect of spending the next half hour trying to eat the whole thing.
The prospect of the part you can't eat appearing in your refrigerator the next morning. The look on your dog's face as a hunk of strip steak lands in his bowl. (A small hunk. Okay, a particle.)
The continuity at the coat check. You get your coat. Someone in a tuxedo says, "Bye, now. See you next time."
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Knowing that the next time, according to family tradition, is precisely six weeks away.
Kyle Wagner is taking the week off.
Morton's of Chicago, 1701 Wynkoop Street, 825-3353. Hours: 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.