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We agreed to meet on Dec. 26 and treat that evening as our Christmas. I offered to make dinner, a proposal that seemed to generate as much anxiety as excitement. My younger sister, Judith Lawson, wondered whether we would have time to make the final funeral arrangements and still get dinner on the table by 6 p.m. for a pack of hungry teenagers. Her concerns were legit: I have a reputation for promising the moon and the stars — and delivering Starbucks instead.
But I had my own worries. Judith is a lawyer, not a cook. What's more, she and her husband, Chris (a lawyer, too), had only partially moved into their new home, the site of the family gathering. Many items remained at their old house, including such unimportant stuff as kitchen tools. (Earlier in the year, when my mom was in hospice, I decided to make runzas for our clan of displaced Nebraskans, which would have been easy had there been a stand mixer in the house. Or a cutting board. Or a even a large bowl.)
Despite our mutual concerns, I charged ahead with dinner. I planned a basic, hearty, Midwestern meal: a spice-rubbed beef tenderloin with whipped mashed potatoes. My wife, Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan, offered to make a Caesar salad. It wouldn’t be fancy, but it also wouldn’t be delivery. I already felt empty, with both parents now gone. I couldn’t stand the thought of feeding empty calories to the family.
Halfway through the flight to Kansas City, I had a thought that made me sit bolt upright in my seat: I bet Judith and Chris don’t have a meat thermometer!
When we arrived, my sister and brother-in-law had bought all the ingredients for the meal — including, without prompting, a meat thermometer. Lawyers: They think of everything.
Even though it was a cheap stick thermometer, I figured it would do the trick. But when I plunged it into the tenderloin, just a minute after the beef went into the oven, I knew I was in trouble. The thermometer registered around 120 degrees, a shade short of my desired temperature of 130. Impossible. The blasted thing had to be off by at least 50 degrees. With more time, I’d have calibrated the thermometer with boiling water, but I was already running late, and those potatoes weren’t going to mash and fold themselves. To determine the internal temperature, I’d have to rely on touch, the home-cooking equivalent of navigating a bedroom in the dark.
I was kicking myself for not packing my sleek, compact and reliable Polder thermometer, with its digital pop-up screen and magnet on the back. I've been using the gadget for years to monitor the internal temperature of brisket during its tedious 14 hours in the smoker. I've used the device so often, its probe cord has turned black with soot. In fact, in December, I bought a clean backup for a holiday party that Carrie and I hosted, and I used it to cook the same tenderloin that I'd later make for my family.
The beef for the party was perfect, its exterior crusty and caramelized and its interior red and juicy to the very edges of the roast. The one I cooked in Kansas City? Well, it was good, a few degrees past medium-rare. And my heart rate was also a few beats above normal without my trusty thermometer.