If you are planning to follow Roxane Gay around on her Untamed Tour, why not stop here too, and read her piece from The Lifted Brow #12, ‘Alexander’s Steakhouse,’ republished below in full.
When I moved to rural Illinois, my new colleagues at a medium-sized state university in a very small, nearly abandoned prairie town were quick to ease the transition by telling me Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois’s flagship campus with more than 40,000 students, was only an hour away. They framed Champaign-Urbana as an urban oasis on the prairie—culture and cool in the middle of a cornfield. I had spent the previous five years in rural Michigan, lived in a town of 4,000, and spent most of my time trying not to get lost in the woods. I was easily convinced that Champaign-Urbana would be the urban oasis I so desperately craved. Then, I actually went to Champaign-Urbana and discovered there was very little oasis to be found. Instead, Champaign-Urbana, beyond the well-manicured campus, was a desolate outpost of strip malls, off-brand motels, and chain restaurants. The first time I pulled off I-74 into Champaign, my heart sank as I passed a Drury Inn, a Red Lobster, a Best Buy and several check-cashing establishments. Not all oases are created equal.
When I returned to my small town, my colleagues assured me I had not yet seen the right part of Champaign-Urbana, that there was a chic downtown area where one could forget they were, well, in Champaign-Urbana. Upon my next visit, I discovered the area: three blocks of overpriced restaurants with Helvetica lettering on their brushed stainless steel signs, tiny boutiques selling three or four items of clothing, and mostly vacant, sleek modern apartment buildings filled with lofts no one in a 180-mile radius could afford.
My gentleman friend turned thirty and to celebrate his birthday, he offered to take me out on the town in Champaign-Urbana. He knew things he said, and he knew people. I was skeptical, not because I doubted the veracity of his knowledge of the “town” but because I had been to Champaign-Urbana, several times, and I had seen all there was to see. I suggested we go to Indianapolis, have a nice dinner, maybe do a little dancing. He assured me we could accomplish these tasks in Champaign-Urbana. Our night would end at an ultra lounge where the air was thick and humid and filled with the pulsing bass of popular dance music while we were entertained by a young woman in a blond wig dancing on top of the slippery bar wearing a pair of black leather chaps, thong panties, a fresh bikini wax, a black leather bra, and nothing else. First though, there would be meat, bloody meat.
I love steakhouses, particularly the old-school ones that call themselves chophouses and serve everything a la carte for outrageous sums—the steakhouses where there are three or four members of the wait staff there to serve you in crisp black shirts and slacks and pristine white aprons tied around their waists. I have been to steakhouses in almost every city I’ve ever visited. This is a source of pride for me. I was born in Nebraska. I know steak. I love steak.
Alexander’s Steakhouse is one of the most popular steakhouses in Champaign-Urbana. This is the Midwest, the land of corn and beef and corn-fed beef so steakhouses are plentiful. When a steakhouse is referred to as popular or the best in town, expectations are therefore very high.
It is strange to see a building vaguely resembling a weatherbeaten lighthouse in a parking lot behind a mostly abandoned strip mall. In real estate, location is everything, or so the saying goes. The location of Alexander’s is not everything. The location is nothing and from the outside, Alexander’s looks almost forgotten save for the late model SUVs lining the parking lot. The entrance is a round vestibule with a very heavy door. It took two of us to open that door, creating a strange vacuum that inspired a mild sense of panic, then there is a second door and finally, you are in the restaurant. Near the entrance, there are Penny Saver newspapers and brochures for a local dentist and other helpful local ephemera. The décor is shabby but not intentionally so in the way of shabby chic. Alexander’s has seen better years and those better years are removed from the present day by decades.
The restaurant was loud and reeked of grilled meats but only half full; the patrons were mostly of the large, Midwest kind—broad faces, broad shoulders, broad bodies. As we made our way to our table, I could not help but notice that there were two very large grills around which men in business casual dress or sports-related outfits stood, sleeves rolled up, staring at meat being cooked. There was also a large double-sided refrigerator with glass doors, at the top of which the word “STEAKS” was printed in large, black, block lettering. This refrigerator was right near the entrance to the restrooms. That was not comforting. I once saw an episode of Mythbusters that demonstrated how far fecal matter travels.
As we sat in our creaky chairs, the stain on the wood long faded, we stared at the single-page menus covered in sticky, smudged plastic and tried to make sense of the modest range of surprisingly expensive beef options—sirloin, filet, strip, rib eye, or kebab. I noticed a small box on the menu containing the words, “Our grill side chef will cook your steak—$2.69.” I did not quite understand this statement so I moved on to the drink menu because alcohol often makes everything better. When our waiter made it to our table, proudly wearing an Illini t-shirt, he asked if we had ever eaten at Alexander’s before. My gentleman friend, his friend, and I all shook our heads. We were Alexander’s virgins, we crowed proudly. The night was starting to feel like an adventure. We ordered drinks, suggested the barkeep make them stiff, and then the waiter politely informed us that we could prepare our own steaks or, for a nominal fee, we could have the chef prepare our steaks for us. The kitchen would be kind enough to prepare any appetizers, bread and our potatoes and we could help ourselves to the salad bar. I was still sober but I openly laughed in the waiter’s face because I had assumed I was in a restaurant, an establishment whose sole purpose was to prepare food for its clientele. At Alexander’s, such was not the case.
There is an unspoken hierarchy when it comes to the responsibility of DIY grilling in a restaurant. It is the men who are tasked with preparing the meat. Around the two large, brick-cased grills, you can practically hear the grunting above the hiss and sizzle of meat. A few women hover possessively and coquettishly behind their men, clinging to a muscular arm as a steak is flipped or sliding a hand into a back jeans pocket. Other women wait at their table alone spending date night together but, for ten or twenty minutes, apart. After the waiter had walked away to fill our drink orders, my gentleman friend puffed his chest, nodded in a manly way, and said, “I’ll cook our meats.” I shook my head vigorously. I said, “We can afford to have the grill side chef cook our meat for us.” His face fell. “You don’t trust me to cook for you?” he asked.
This man has, in fact, cooked for me before, and quite well. I assured him that wasn’t the point. I said I was a traditionalist, and that in a restaurant, the whole point of being there was to outsource food preparation so we could share quality time. I rubbed his thigh and smiled and whispered something in his ear about dessert. He gave in but his disappointment was palpable. As we walked to the depressing salad bar, my gentleman friend stared at the male specimens in their Saturday best cooking steak and exuding a testosterone glow. We filled our plates with browning and wilted lettuce, watery carrot sticks, a few lonely peas. He sighed. He said, “I’m a man, not a rabbit,” and I smiled at him through the sneeze guard. I said, “Yes, baby, you are.”
Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic and her essay collection, Bad Feminist, will be published by Harper Perennial, both in 2014. She is at work on both fiction and nonfiction projects.