This appeared in the Toronto Star as my column on Father’s Day, 2007.
That lovely word perfectly evokes the wrenching but strangely joyful emotion that floods my heart when I think of my dear late dad: a complex, colourful man riddled with contradictions.
A tough wise guy wont to act like a character in the movie Goodfellas, Dr. Mel Schachter was a brilliant “boy wonder” raised during the ‘20s and ‘30s on streets like St. Urbain, Bagg and Esplanade in Montreal’s then Jewish immigrant ghetto. He was from a poor, mostly illiterate family with gangster roots in rural Russia.
In contrast, a learned yet tender obit published after his death in 2000 by the University of Alberta where he was the head of physiology for 20 years described him as “known internationally for his work on endogenous vasoactive substances.”
I learned the latter after I Googled him for this column, not because he ever boasted about his work. Ever the working-class rebel, he loathed pretension.
But there were clues to his professional success. Eminent colleagues like fellow physiologist Sir Andrew Huxley and flea aficionado Dame Miriam Rothschild attended lively dinner parties at our home.
On a humbler note, our pudgy pa often roamed the garden brandishing a butterfly net and looking a lot like Winnie the Pooh, in an effort to catch wasps or hornets so he could snag their venom for experiments.
Recently, I discovered he was a key researcher in the study of kinins: substances in the blood crucial to understanding inflammatory disease.
But Mel was more interested in listening to tapes of comedian Jackie Mason, reciting Robbie Burns, reading works by his hero Tolstoy and seeking out lox and bagels at a lone Jewish deli tucked away in the British white-bread suburb of North London where my family lived for 15 years.
My father had a temper which he directed mostly at fellow academics with whom he often butted heads.
His soft side appeared when he was funny, which was often, and hammed it up doing antics like “Dance of the Piglet” (a spoof of Swan Lake) on dainty tip-toes around the living room.
Mel, a slim young man who grew increasingly tubby as he aged, loved to eat. He also loved to cook.
I can see him now standing by our small stove, having cleared us and all extraneous objects to one side so he had space to wield his spatula, meticulously making salami and eggs for Sunday breakfast – a ritual that was bordering on sacred.
He worked as a short-order cook to put himself through McGill medical school which explains his specialties: Perfect scrambled eggs; fabulous French toast and the ultimate toasted bacon sandwich.
Swiss Steak, Mel’s favourite dish, was a family staple. This recipe is adapted from the one in my mother’s tattered 1940s Joy of Cooking. I’ll be making it, as she often did, in honour of my inimitable dad tomorrow, Father’s Day.
My mother used round steak for this richly sauced braised beef dish. I use flatiron steak if it’s available; flank steak would do. You can use a bit less flour to dust the beef and a bit more vegetable oil for frying. I usually omit the celery. I buy tomato paste in a tube – it’s easier to use than canned. This dish is a winner.
2 lb/1 kilo bottom round steak
1 tsp garlic, minced
½ tsp each: salt and pepper
About ½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup each: diced onion, celery and carrot
1 cup beef or chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine or beer
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325°F.
Slice steak horizontally into individual steaks or leave whole. Rub with garlic, salt and pepper.
Place flour in shallow bowl. Dredge steak(s), shaking off excess flour.
In large ovenproof skillet or dutch oven, heat oil over high heat. Add steak(s); cook, turning once, until browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to plate.
Reduce heat under skillet to medium; add onion, celery and carrot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in stock, wine, tomato paste, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to boil. Return steak(s) to skillet. Cover with lid or foil. Bake in oven until tender, about 1 to 1½ hours for individual steaks, 2 to 2½ hours for whole. Transfer steak(s) to warmed platter. Skim fat from sauce. Remove bay leaves. Add salt and pepper. Pour over steak(s).
Makes 4 to 6 servings.