It's always interesting to me how we enjoy some foods only during certain times of the year or on certain occasions. We love the dishes and meals, yet we reserve them for a specific time, place, or holiday. My grandmother didn't believe in that rule. Sunday lunches at her house were always an event. It’s also where my love of food and for dining began. There was a particular rotation that she followed. One Sunday a month we would have leg of lamb. The next Sunday we would have roast beef. The third Sunday we would basically have a Thanksgiving meal, whether it was November, January, or June.
I love turkey, dressing, gravy, and all the trimmings that go with the typical Thanksgiving meal. We ate that as our Christmas Eve formal dinner as well. But there were ten other months during the year when we ate turkey and dressing. Her philosophy was, if it's good enough for important occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, why not do that more often during the year?
As a side note, for the first eight years of my life, they told me that leg of lamb was roast beef. Which always made me think we were having roast beef two Sundays in a row, which didn't bother me because I loved roast beef. I just thought it tasted a little different one week. To this day I love leg of lamb and I have never eaten a lamb dish better than the one my grandmother prepared once a month during my childhood.
There are other foods that my family reserved for certain occasions. We didn't take a lot of family vacations to the beach, though when we did there were two items that were always present— marinated eye of round and freezer sandwiches.
I've written often about freezer sandwiches and there are currently a couple of dozen in the freezer at our lake house. When I'm motivated, I make a batch to keep at the house. They are my favorite casual Saturday afternoon lunch at home, and the perfect vacation lunch when I am away. The recipe is easy. Nothing fancy, just sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and basic hamburger buns. They have to be the cheap kind of bun. Fancy ones don’t work. The buns are brushed on top and bottom, and on both insides with a mixture of Dijon mustard, melted butter, horseradish, and poppy seeds, then wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the freezer until ready to bake. When it's time to eat, I just pop a frozen one in a 400-degree oven. It takes about 45 minutes. It is an oven-only sandwich. It can’t be cooked in the microwave because the crispiness of the outside of the bread comes from the contact with the hot aluminum foil.
The other vacation staple from when I was a child was marinated eye of round. I think my mother got the recipe she used from her friend Patty Hall. Eye of round is an inexpensive cut of beef that looks— on first inspection— like a small beef tenderloin, although, other than it is a cut of beef, it has nothing in common with a beef tenderloin. It is a very lean, tougher cut of beef that comes from the back leg of the steer and is more akin to roast beef, as the top round makes an excellent roast. The eye of round, when heavily marinated and baked, makes good sandwiches.
My mother used either Italian dressing or Lipton onion soup mix to marinate the eye of round. I’m not quite sure, but both of those items were always ever-present in our pantry and had multiple uses beyond their original intent. Whichever she used she would marinate heavily, season with salt and pepper, bake in the oven, let cool, and then wrap it and placfe it in the ice chest with the other food items we were bringing on vacation.
When making sandwiches all one had to do was slice the eye of round against the grain and slap a couple of pieces between two pieces of white bread that had been slathered with mayonnaise, and add salt and pepper. In later years I began adding lettuce, but as a child it was basic meat, cheese and bread. It's a good cold sandwich but we only ate it on vacation. I'm not sure why we wouldn't keep one in the refrigerator year-round for quick sandwiches or snacks. It was a cheap cut of beef and so price couldn't have been the reason, but I think we all get it in our heads that there are certain foods that are eaten on vacation that can't be eaten at home.
A couple of decades ago I changed the offerings for family vacations. We still make freezer sandwiches and bring them along, but I started using a whole beef tenderloin for sandwiches when we are out of town. It started because we had catered an event a couple of days before a vacation back in the 1990s. One of my go-tos for catering events is a whole smoked beef tenderloin. We put them out— buffet style— and serve them alongside rolls freshly baked rolls and a horseradish-mustard I developed. One day we had an entire beef tenderloin leftover after a party, so I wrapped it tightly and packed it into an ice chest to take to Florida. It was a huge hit.
Since then, I have traded marinated eye of round sandwiches for smoked beef tenderloin sandwiches. The process is easy. I trim a whole beef tenderloin and season it liberally with steak seasoning, put it on an almost-cold smoker until it reaches rare (125 degrees). Next, I pop it in the oven and take it to medium rare (135 degrees). At that point I have two options— if I want to serve it warm as an entrée, I serve it immediately. But if I want to serve it on a buffet for cold sandwiches or take it on vacation, I let it cool and then put it in the refrigerator. This is perfect vacation food. Granted, it's expensive, especially these days, but no more expensive than many of the tourist restaurants one finds when traveling out of town.
My friend Jesse Marin is visiting from Rome. We brought him over for a two-week visit in the United States. We are currently in the Florida Panhandle, where he is enjoying the sun and beaches with my family on our annual jaunt down to this part of the world. Two nights before we left, we threw him a big party and invited a lot of the people who have traveled with us on Italian tours with us, and a and assortment of our local friends who had never met him. At the party we served smoked beef tenderloin. There were two full tenderloins left over, so I wrapped them, stuck them in the ice chest, and brought them down along with freezer sandwiches.
My son has two of his friends here. Between the three of them, and Jesse, the tenderloin is going fast. My wife brought enough groceries to feed a summer camp an entire week, but the go-to is the beef tenderloin.
The sandwiches are pretty much like what I always have eaten, whether it was eye of round or beef tenderloin. These days I use whole wheat bread, spread mayonnaise on both sides, put two slices of smoked beef tenderloin on the bread, then add lettuce, salt, and pepper. It's the perfect sandwich with a side of Wickles and Fritos. Jesse, being the healthy one in the bunch, spread his bread with avocado and then placed the beef tenderloin on it before topping it with chopped tomatoes, salt, and pepper.
Tonight, we’ll eat freezer sandwiches and I’ll think of vacations past while enjoying the moment with these wonderful people.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.