I’m so glad this holiday season is over. Because if I hear one more boast about brisket, I think I’m going to spray paint someone’s Dutch oven. When did brisket emerge as the national dish of December? And where was I when this was happening? Clearly not in the supermarket purchasing Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.
I realized that I was living on the fringe of a cult when I innocently asked a few friends, “How was your holiday? Did your family join you?” And to a person, the response was consistent –“Yes they did, and I made a brisket!” The pride factor was palpable.
Another aspect of this mania that I found utterly baffling was that each woman who rhapsodized about this fatty chunk of beef claimed to have the absolutely best brisket recipe ever, a family treasure handed down from Great-Aunt Selma, whose secret ingredient was whispered in the greatest confidence – grape jelly! Or was it Coca-Cola? (Some weird stuff goes into brisket.)
And men were no better. Discussions about their floundering golf games were temporarily replaced by passionate praise of their wives’ briskets. While it’s flattering to be extolled by one’s husband, I would prefer to be praised for, let’s say, my looks, andor my intelligence, and the fact that I am very adept at fixing paper jams on his printer.
Perhaps I couldn’t share the culinary enthusiasm of my friends because my personal relationship with brisket did not have a good beginning. Let’s just say that brisket and I got off on the wrong hoof.
My mother had many excellent qualities, but cooking wasn’t one of them. Frequently, on Friday nights, or some other occasion that was supposed to be celebratory, she would set before the family a platter containing some gray-brown meat that reminded me of a cooked loafer. With ketchup. I told her I couldn’t possibly eat this because it was ugly. She told me to go to my room. I reminded her that I didn’t have a room. We lived in a small apartment.
But that was a long time ago, and childhood trauma notwithstanding, perhaps it was time to discover for myself what all the fuss was about.
Since I had banished brisket from my life, I had never considered its source. In my mind, if my thoughts ever even turned in that direction, I had lumped it together with the rest of those fatty, ethnic cuts of beef that had to be cooked to death before it was edible. All of which, to my aesthetic sensibility, were equally as ugly.
So I decided to investigate. I began with one of those diagrams you sometimes see in meat markets, the one where the cow is divided into sections so it no longer looks a like an animal, but resembles a map of a small country. I find the drawing a bit disturbing, but educational. Upon completion of my research, this is what I learned:
- Brisket (lower chest) is not flanken (short ribs) and flanken is not brisket. And neither of them, strictly speaking, are pot roast (chuck, upper chest). Roast beef is another matter all together, coming from the end of the cow we would prefer not to think about.
- Brisket is very talented. Brisket in brine turns into corned beef, while corned beef cured morphs into pastrami. And I have never regarded corned beef or pastrami as unappealing. So brisket is the ugly duckling, capable of becoming the Miss America of the kosher deli.
- This may come as a shock to some, but Jews do not own brisket. In fact, it may be the most multi-cultural item on the planet. It is an inexpensive cut of beef, which lends itself to the culinary preferences of many different regions and nationalities.
- The French cook it with bacon and cognac; Texans like it barbecued with Tex-Mex spices.
- Each Eastern European country has its own version.
- Asians love it. There are Thai briskets and Korean briskets. The Chinese like it with ginger, especially in restaurants on Sundays and Christmas.
So maybe there was something to all this passion. Perhaps brisket is the antidote for a bad day. If you’re willing to put in the time, the result will be a succulent comfort food, right up there with meat loaf and mashed potatoes, replete with delicious gravy and a little horse radish sauce on the side.
I am now converted. New Year’s resolution (just one): I will cook a brisket. Of course, mine will be the best recipe ever, giving my husband bragging rights at the next gathering of his friends.
And since it has such an international appeal, I say the next time world leaders sit down for a summit meeting, someone should serve a brisket. This formerly ugly meat could very well be our best hope for world peace!