This Passover, I’m in charge of the brisket.
In our family, briskets are served steaming with a large measure of pride and a pinch of vanity.
In my house growing up, holidays meant eating in the dining room on the large chairs with rose velvet cushions, and using our fancy china with tiny pink flowers. And despite the fact that my father always bought my mother a gigantic bouquet of flowers on the eve of a holiday, the brisket was the real centerpiece of our dining room table.
My mom is famous for her brisket. When I was a kid, the sweet smell of simmering meat and onions would settle over our house, days before the holiday even began, shepherding us from our hectic lives into a calmer, transcendent, even spiritual zone in which even my sister and I got along.
At the holiday meal, I filled my dish with traditional holiday foods: sweet potatoes, green beans, some kind of kugel, roasted chicken, and finally, the tender brown slice of saucy meat, its juices running carelessly around my plate, soaking into the other foods. My dad would take the first bite and announce, “Fantastic! This brisket melts in your mouth!”
And it did. The soft pieces of meat would fall off our forks as we lifted them to our mouths. The other foods freeloaded off the succulence of the brisket: if the turkey was dry or if the kugel was bland, the meat’s sauce would moisten and flavor. All the other days of the year, my mom served up much simpler fare: chicken, hamburgers, spaghetti. But her brisket was special, reserved for meals in the dining room. It truly separated this night from all other nights. I imagined that such a delicious entree required superior culinary skills that were way out of my league.
Some years ago, my mom handed off the brisket-making to my sister, while I was still single and living on the Upper East Side in a studio apartment and bringing things like salad to family functions. There was an implicit understanding that she was more qualified for the job, with a husband, a kid, and a set of Vera Wang china. But even when I got married, had a baby, and gained three step-kids, the brisket was still off-limits to me. Maybe it was the “D” I got in home economics class in seventh grade?
Then last year, for the first time, the brisket-making fell to me. Armed with my own stainless steel pots and pans, I felt ready to tackle it.
Of course, I had a lot of questions: what type of meat WAS brisket exactly? How much should I buy? What went into the sauce? How could I get that amazing smell to engulf my entire house? And most important: did this mean I was a grown-up?
The women in my life all gave advice–solicited and not–about the one special ingredient that must go into a good brisket: Coca-Cola, Heinz chili sauce, grape jelly. I decided to go with my mom’s tried and true recipe.
She explained that the important thing is that I buy “first cut” meat. She must’ve repeated it 10 times because as I was listening to her, I doodled “first cut” and underlined it four times on a yellow post-it, lest I forget this most critical directive. I went to the kosher butcher, paid almost $100 for a piece of meat I was sure I would ruin, and lugged home my “first cut” slab of cow.
Finally, the day came to combine ketchup and Italian dressing and apricot preserves and onions on a hunk of meat and whip up the special holiday feeling that would transform my hectic house into a cozy home. Though I hate to admit it, I asked my mom to come and help. I figured if she was there for my birth, my bat mitzvah, and my wedding, she should be here for this rite of passage.
She was running late so she called from her cell phone on her way to my house to get me started.
“Take the meat out of the refrigerator” (thanks) “and season it with pepper, paprika and garlic powder on both sides. Then cook it for 30 minutes on 450 degrees, turn it over, and then cook it another 30 minutes. I should be there by the time you are taking it out.”
OK, easy enough, though 6.5 pounds felt heavy as I flipped it in my large Calphalon pot. (A 7.5 pound Emmet had seemed much lighter, though thankfully, much cuter)
She arrived just as I was taking it out of the oven.
“OK, good, so now cut your onions into thin slices. Do you have any diet Coke for me?”
I pointed her towards her soda, while I began slicing onions (and my own special ingredient: a small sliver of my left middle fingernail). Emmet began yelling from his room, “Nana! Come see my magnets!”
My mom rushed upstairs to see him, yelling down, “Okay, reduce the heat to 325 and start making the sauce.” She proceeded to rattle off exact measurements to the ounce of each of the ingredients. How did she remember that you needed exactly 18 ounces of preserves and 10 ounces of ketchup? Is this the same woman who sometimes forgets the story she is telling in the midst of telling it? It was perplexing, but impressive.
In a few minutes, the sauce was poured over the meat, and the onions were placed carefully in the pan. My brisket was finally in the oven to be checked on for moistness in three hours. For those hours while my brisket baked, my mother and my son played Candyland on my family room floor and my dad played ping pong in the basement with my husband. I sat in the kitchen and breathed in the sweet smell of family.