A Ham Steak and a Hot Mic
For the first time in a couple of years, my friend Norm and I were finally arranging to meet for lunch. He lives a couple of hours south of me. A google search for a restaurant in between us turned up Mastori’s, a large restaurant-diner. When I clicked on their website, I discovered it had closed, a casualty of the pandemic. This was sad news since Mastori’s had been family-owned and operated for 90 years and was a New Jersey fixture. Known for their savory cheese and cinnamon breads that were placed on each table, Mastori’s was a favorite for families, local politicians, and patrons who came from far and wide. Even President Gerald Ford dined there.
I hadn’t been to Mastori’s in many years. But reading the notice of its closing brought me back to a terribly embarrassing experience on my first visit there, many years ago. Our friends Jason and Brianna were at our house, and we were deciding where to go for dinner. We were still relatively new to the area, but they had lived here for much longer and seemed to know every restaurant in New Jersey.
“I know just the place,” Jason proclaimed enthusiastically. “Ever hear of Mastori’s? It’s the best. The food is terrific. And you will be shocked by the size of the portions.”
Sure, we’ll give it a try, I agreed, though quietly thinking that there is something unsettling about how much of a premium we place on “portion size.” Maybe it’s an American thing, wrapped up in entitlement expectations in which bigger is always better. In any case, the promise of good quality was enough for me.
Mastori’s was large, divided into multiple rooms. One had a traditional diner look, with cushioned booths of bold colors and a counter with red vinyl-covered round stools – a style right out of the 50’s. A second was a tavern. The third, a more formal dining room with linen-covered tables, is where we were seated. It was a good thing we had made reservations – as big as Mastori’s was, it was packed and the wait could be over an hour.
As we were ushered to our table, I noticed that Styrofoam containers and doggy bags sat atop tables of people who were winding down.
The waiter brought over the menus along with a basket of the most exquisitely aromatic breads. I could have been fully contented from the aroma alone. The menu, a giant laminated picture book at least ten pages long, was crammed with every possible food category imaginable.
I settled on something I hadn’t had in years, the ham steak. The photo featured its hatched grill lines, making it look tantalizingly irresistable. The menu indicated it came with two sides. I chose broccoli and a sweet potato.
Jason and Brianna were beaming as they reminded us of the portion size. “Just wait, you’ll be amazed,” they giggled, giving one another that knowing glance.
About ten minutes after ordering, the waiter arrived with our meals. He placed the large tray on a stand next to our table. I glanced over, taking note of the size of the ham steak. It was astonishingly big. He lifted the plate with two hands, which was only because he didn’t have a third, and placed it in front of me.
I couldn’t recall seeing any single serving of food that large in my life. The plate must have had a diameter of 18 inches, and the ham steak overlapped it on both sides. The vegetables were in a tureen-sized bowl.
For me, this was not exactly appetizing, more like I was descending into decadence. I knew Amy felt the same. Indeed, this was gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I was about to embark not on dinner but rather on a grueling porcine journey. It seemed more a sporting event than a meal, more akin to a dare, a challenge—I thought of Joey Chestnut eating 70+ hot dogs each year to win Nathan’s July 4th Hot Dog Challenge at Coney Island.
Facing the ham steak was like standing at the base of Mount Everest. It hits you that each bite, each step, is at once momentous, part of an extraordinary achievement, and yet meaningless, infinitesimal in its contribution to the whole. Well, perhaps engorging oneself with food does not constitute a worthy comparison to scaling the world’s tallest peak. But at least with Everest you have a guide. I had no fearless sherpa to help me traverse this vast uncharted epicurean wilderness.
I spent the first few minutes canvassing the landscape of the ham steak, which was growing bigger and bigger in my mind’s eye. It dominated the space in front of me, crossing multiple time zones. This is not an exaggeration! After all, no one on earth, make that no one in the entire galaxy, eschews hyperbole more than I.
I calculated a strategy for this gastronomical excursion. Borrowing from a Lewis and Clark expedition, I would start at the southwest quadrant and navigate north across two climate zones. Then, if not fully spent, I’d come up for air to initiate a voyage in the sea of vegetables, hoping to be able to track my way out and continue the circumnavigation up the west coast of the ham steak. This seemed like a safer approach than veering toward the center where being unanchored from an end might disorient me.
As I thought this through, the waiter placed the other dinners in front of Amy, Jason, and Brianna. There was now enough food on the table to feed a small village.
“Please enjoy,” the waiter offered with an encouraging smile and a slight bow as he pivoted and began to walk away.
As he did, I leaned toward Jason and jokingly whispered, “I thought you said the portions were big.” Gesturing toward the ham steak, I said, “This isn’t big enough to feed a child.”
A bit of polite laughter ensued from my witless stab at humor.
We began eating.
Not five minutes later, I caught a glimpse of the waiter heading in our direction. He held aloft a large tray. As he neared us, the enormous tray obscured the light in the room, like we were succumbing to a solar eclipse. Arriving at our table, he placed the tray on a stand. Sitting on the tray was one platter supporting a ham steak that was twice as massive as the one I had. It was like I was staring at an entire continent.
The waiter reached in my direction and gently pushed my plate to the side. Then, summoning all his strength, he hoisted the platter from the tray and placed it in front of me. As he did, he pointed to my original ham steak and explained, “I am so sorry that you found that ham steak too small. We take pride in our portion size. I shared your concern with the chef and he made it a priority to provide a serving more suited to your expectations.”
I was stunned. “I, um, er, I was just kidding,” I stammered.
“No need to apologize,” the waiter replied. “Our goal is to please all our customers. If your meal was not to your liking, we want to make amends. Bon appetite!”
Mortified, I looked around. Feigning nonchalance, I took a bite. It was, I could not deny, delicious. The quality was as Jason promised.
Another bite. I cut another, but as I did, I felt eyes upon me, drilling into me. The back of my neck tingled. Patrons sitting at nearby tables were staring, jaws agape in disbelief.
A second later, a woman a couple of tables away could restrain herself no more, blurting as she pointed at me, as one might upon recognizing the perpetrator in a police lineup, “Him. That man. That man over there complained about the size of his portion.”
Another gasped, “What nerve! How could anybody stoop that low.”
The floodgates opened.
A man three tables away turned ashen from disbelief, spluttering. “Of all the things to complain about, not getting enough food. Well, that takes the cake.”
The gawking was rampant and the buzzing about my complaint spread across the room. I could pick up snippets of the rumblings: “Who does he think he is?” “They should have thrown him out, not reward his insults with a second meal!” “This brings rudeness and entitlement to levels I never thought humanly possible.” “Smelling salts. Please! I’m about to faint. Does someone have smelling salts?”
A man in the corner appeared to be trembling. No longer able to contain his rage, he pried his napkin from his collar – it was tucked in as a bib – and shrieked, “That man, that monster, has made it impossible for me take another bite.”
To my surprise, my dining companions, Amy, Jason, and Brianna, did not seem to be affected by all these comments. They continued chatting and enjoying their dinners. I was sure I heard the outrage out loud, but maybe, just maybe, it was only my internal shame giving voice to the penetrating glares, stares, and pointing fingers? Perhaps no one had actually uttered a peep?
Nevertheless, just as the ham steak had grown larger and larger in my mind’s eye, with each “comment” I shrunk smaller and smaller in my chair. Uncomfortable with the very idea of large portion sizes, the irony of the misunderstanding caused my cheeks to burn with embarrassment.
The die was cast. I was a pariah. I resolved to rise up, stand on my chair, and announce to the entire room that I was just kidding.
Just then, as though a lightning bolt bore into my brain, I was struck with the realization that rather than destroying the diners’ evening, not to mention their foundational beliefs about human decency, I actually gave them an extraordinary gift. Those present on that fateful night will forever have their own awe-engendering story of “I was there when…” This would rank right up there with the weird luck to have been in attendance at Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth gestured where he would hit a home run or on a fortuitous stroll past Buckingham Palace the very moment that Elizabeth II was crowned queen.
For the patrons at Mastori’s, that night would long be remembered as an exceptional moment in which the divine hand of destiny bestowed upon them an equally unparalleled once in a lifetime experience, the night that someone had the unthinkably shameless audacity to complain about the portion size at Mastori’s.
Fifty years hence, young grandchildren will beg, “Grandpa, Grandma, please tell me again about the shockingly disgraceful incident when that unhinged lunatic insultingly accused Mastori’s of serving an undersized portion.”
Though there were only about 150 diners who were actually in Mastori’s dining room on that auspicious evening, thousands, perhaps millions, will have asserted they were there. Yankee Stadium holds about 60,000, but millions have claimed to be present when the Babe mythically pointed to the outfield stands. That’s how it goes with history-making moments. A few even swear to have personally greeted Neil Armstrong as he took that one small step.
Now proud of myself for having altered the trajectory of the lives of those in Mastori’s, for giving ordinary people not merely fifteen minutes of fame but a lifetime of celebrity, I reached for my phone. It was time to reserve a U-Haul for the doggy bags.