Salty Brisket, Peanut Butter Ice Cream and the Worst Meal I Ever Had

On the first night of Hanukkah, I ate the worst meal in the nearly 39 years of my marriage.
December 17, 2020
Photo from Getty Images

On the first night of Hanukkah, my husband Tom and I had the worst meal we had eaten in the nearly 39 years of our marriage (Since we threw most of it down the garbage disposal, I’m exaggerating to call it the worst “meal”).

I’m a good cook of the Russian Jewish variety, with lots of Italian and a bit of Chinese wok thrown in. I love to make hearty, meaty dishes that have to cook for a few hours so that if I forget the exact minute to extract them from the pot or oven, it doesn’t make any difference. I don’t bake, poach, make desserts, prepare anything delicate or cook fish. I don’t bother with recipes that have ingredients I can’t pronounce or find at Gelson’s or Trader Joe’s. I make the best brisket on the planet.

Tom studied chemistry, doesn’t normally cook much and is a bit OCD. About a year ago, he bought this gizmo, a “sous vide” cooker, which featured a very large plastic container and several other incomprehensible pieces. He started cooking steaks and lamb chops in it, the only dishes he ever prepared. “I’m experimenting,” he announced happily, as he shoved the cooker into the pantry closet, taking up much of the limited space. I swore, “OK, it’s your game, do what you will, but I’m not using it or cleaning it.” And I never have.

Sous vide means “under vacuum” in French, which entails sealing the food in a plastic bag to cook with all the air removed. The bag is submerged in water that is raised electrically to low heat and is cooked for much longer than is conventional. The use of the bag, the water bath, the minimal temperature and the extended cooking time results, God willing, in superior taste, texture and aroma. I can only say it looks very weird to see a thick steak in the container surrounded by gurgling water, but, in fact, I can swear that it produces the best steaks I’ve ever tasted. Really.

Tom was gleeful in explaining to me the details. “The fan at the bottom circulates the water, keeping it hot. I suck the air out with a straw. A rare steak cooks for the grand total of one hour.” He was thrilled and began reading recipes and figuring out his upcoming adventure.

Then he discovered the 40-hour brisket. “Forty hours?” I shrieked. “That can’t be. My divine brisket cooks for three hours, and it’s perfect, juicy, flavorful and tender.” Tom insisted the brisket that’s submerged for a day and a half (oh yes) and then continues cooking in the oven for another three hours has gotten the best reviews on a website catering to brisket-obsessed chefs.

I told him I would either take a plane to Hong Kong and back and arrive just in time for dinner or I would use a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor for two nights in case something scary happened and the whole machine exploded. He thought I was crazy, of course.

I did neither. I periodically checked in on the brisket, but I couldn’t see anything happening. I just heard a soft hum from the fan.

We told various friends what Tom was doing. Our funny friend Carole said, “Anybody who embraces this idea needs help. What could possibly happen at 40 hours that you wouldn’t get at three hours?” Steve quipped, “Tom’s got more time on his hands than he should.”

So on Thursday night, the beginning of Hanukkah and the optimum dinner course of brisket, it emerged from the long bath. It looked, to me, like the dead chunk of animal that we once saw on the plains of Tanzania. But I was hopeful, and Tom was excited. Tragically, he was having trouble getting the knife to pierce into it. Finally, he succeeded in cutting a small piece off the side, and we bit into it. It was tough, tasteless and reeking of salt. And it still had to cook for another three hours in the oven.

It looked, to me, like the dead chunk of animal that we once saw on the plains of Tanzania.

“What is going on?” I wailed. “I can’t imagine,” he wailed back. “I followed the prized recipe exactly.” We both made an instant decision to laugh through this instead of getting upset. It was only meat, although more money than I would have liked to think about. We called our friend Jon, a master chef, desperate. He said, “Slice it very thin, make a gravy of the juice, red wine and beef broth and stick it in the oven for an hour.”

We still had hope. But the brisket emerged from the oven hopeless. Hopeless. After it cooled, we shoved it down the garbage disposal and settled in for our Hanukkah supper of Häagen Dazs peanut butter ice cream. We realized this had been a special event: “Even with all our travels through the world, eating tarantulas in Thailand and sheep innards in Africa, we’ve never had anything that tasted so vile,” we agreed, laughing. There are two cuts for brisket — one is perfect, the other should never have left the cow. Tom admitted, “I think I chose the wrong one.”

The next day, Tom announced that he was going to try it again, using a recipe that calls for 25 hours of cooking instead of 40. “It’s an experiment,” he insisted. “This time, I’ll get it right.” I’ve said nothing.

Marcia Seligson is a theatrical producer in Los Angeles and New York and a sometimes journalist. She is currently writing her memoirs.


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