Filet Melee
©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

Colleen had been over to share a Thankgiving meal since we were both going to be alone otherwise anyway. We weren't really a couple yet but it was getting closer without either of us realizing it. She cooked a chicken with potatoes and vegetables, plenty for two people. It was a rare use of the oven since, as was true when I was living on my own and going to graduate school, I cooked almost nothing that didn't come out of a box.

For some reason, this encouraged me to attempt something more culinarily ambitious, never mind that Colleen did nearly all the work of Thanksgiving Dinner and I did not do any more than stir pots and baste the chicken. Perhaps I thought that since she made it look easy, it might actually be easy, or at least easier than I thought.

But what to start with?

The answer came in a coupon book bulk mailed to me and everyone else in the neighborhood from a local Warehouse Club. I happened to belong to it courtesy of a free membership, even though I was not the target demographic for 44-gallon drums of chicken soup and hundred-roll packs of paper towels. Once in a while something showed up in these coupon books that was worth a trip. In this one, what caught my eye was an offer for five dollars off a package of premium beef. That probably wouldn't be much of an incentive given that the cuts of beef would be around the size of those hurled into carts on the game show Supermarket Sweep; but perhaps I'd be fortunate enough to get one that weighed less than twenty pounds before cooking.

So, still mostly on a whim, I ventured in to said Warehouse Club. After making my way through and being amused by the 144-count toothbrushes, five gallon jugs of catsup, and cubic yard boxes of cereal, I arrived at the meat section. And lo and behold, there was a reasonably sized cut of meat available that was eligible for the use of the coupon.

A small package of... filet mignon.

I exclusively reserved dining on filet mignon to eating out, and even then only on rare occasions. If I'm going to have steak at a restaurant, I'm going to have something relatively small and manageable, not the "bet you can't eat this much" portion of a lower-quality cut of beef. Yes, it costs more, but I appreciate the difference between filet mignon and Everything Else.

And call that mistake number one: presuming that a warehouse club package labeled "filet mignon" actually contains filet mignon. With the coupon, it didn't cost much more than the cheapest type of steak, which probably should have been a clue that I had just made my first mistake. At any rate, I had a package with two cuts of meat.

I brought it back, stuck it in the refrigerator, and checked online for the proper way to cook myself this treat. And...

"The best option by far is a cast-iron skillet."

The utensils at hand were not anything like that.

Fortunately, another quick browse online informed me that a place where I could purchase a cast iron skillet was still open. There I learned that the cost of a cast-iron skillet was roughly equivalent to what I had spent for an entire set of pots and pans, which says more about the pots and pans than the cast iron skillet. I remembered from my check on the Internet that I needed to have a pre-seasoned one, whatever that meant.

And as long as I was going whole hog anyway, I opted for a slightly more expensive skillet with ribs. That way, the fat could drain off more easily, right?

Call that mistake number two.

By the time I left the store, my stomach had sounded a double alarm. I knew I was not going to get a filet mignon cooked that evening, so instead I went for a beef product that was substantially farther down-scale: a drive-through cheeseburger.

The next day after work I thought I was all set to try out my confidence on something other than toast or a microwavable "meal solution." I had bookmarked the recipe in my web browser and referred back to it.


I knew I didn't have any olive oil when I read about the cast iron skillet. Back out into the breach. I had no idea which olive oil to buy, so naturally I just picked up a small bottle of the least expensive variety. I don't know whether that was a mistake or not.

I was eagerly anticipating the tasty product of my own cooking, but first I needed to prepare the side dish. My selection was, well, out of a box... instant mashed potatoes, or as my father referred to them, "fake potatoes." This name goes back to when my father was left at home while the rest of was went to five o'clock Saturday mass. He was in charge of making sure that the instant potatoes were ready... or maybe it was only that the water, margarine and potato flakes were ready for my mother to prepare, as she had lost interest in peeling, cooking and mashing potatoes for an ordinary family meal.

"Fake potatoes again," my father complained.

"But they're very practical," I noted. "Whatever you don't eat, you can use to patch the sidewalk."

Fake or not, they had become a mainstay with me, with the following exceptions: first, I used real butter instead of margarine; second, I added milk, though usually more than the recipe called out; third, I prepared them in the microwave. (Yes, there are directions on the box for this.) And I typically finished the batch before they were hard enough to use as concrete substitute—so there.

I whipped up a batch, set it aside and prepared for the main event. I had remembered to leave the filet mignon out for a bit before starting to cook it. I also pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees, one of the few times that I used the oven in my apartment.

Ten minutes later, the oven signaled that it was at the requisite temperature. I took the cast iron skillet, anointed it with a reasonable amount of olive oil, and placed it on the stove. I turned the burner to "high" as per the instructions. A minute later, feeling the heat of the stove, I unwrapped the filet and put it on the skillet.

A minute after that, it was really smokey in the apartment as the filet sizzled.

Fortunately, the apartment had a balcony with a sliding door, and I was able to bring in some fresh air before I set off the smoke detector.

That wasn't enough. Copious amounts of smoke continued to issue from of the skillet and into the rest of the apartment. The filet was probably cooking under all of that, but it was hard to tell. Perhaps I shouldn't have started with a filet mignon after all. Call that mistake number three.

Somehow I made it through the time allotted for searing the first side of the filet, and I carefully flipped it over to continue the process of cooking it.

What happened next came as a complete surprise, with no countermeasure to apply.

There was no protocol in any of the online recipes I checked for what to do if the meat caught on fire.

My annoyance at the amount of smoke I produced turned to complete panic as a yellow flame shot out of the meat. The filet was engulfed milliseconds later. I had a mess on my hands, and no fire extinguisher within reach. I turned off the heat, which didn't stop the burning. I then dumped the meat into the sink, still aflame, and sprayed it with water, which produced more smoke, which finally triggered the smoke alarm. Fortunately, that did the trick, and with the water still running, I put down the skillet onto an unused part of the stove and ran to the smoke alarm to silence it.

So, that didn't go well.

I concluded, however, that the meat, black as coal on both sides, was certainly seared. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I put the filet back on the skillet and placed the whole thing into the oven which was still at 400 degrees. I suppose that could have been mistake number four—it could have re-ignited in the oven, which would have been a bigger disaster and hard to explain to the apartment complex management. Fortunately, that didn't happen.

However, the result was so inedible that I couldn't even tempt the cat with it. She just turned up her nose and walked away from the small uncharred but still quite well done piece that I cut from the center of the, well, whatever it had become.

Dinner turned out to consist entirely of a large helping of fake potatoes and a glass of milk.

Colleen helped with the post-mortem of this event. Where to begin? Probably with the idea that I should not have made quite as ambitious a jump from microwavable "meal solutions" to filet mignon, although, in my defense, what was marked as such was very likely not as advertised either.

The next time I tried to cook, I went back to scrambled eggs. It was much safer that way.