December 16, 2018

Of meat and metaphor: An almost-vegetarian makes brisket

I’m not a vegetarian, but since I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, I’ve been eating less and less meat. Many of my friends are vegetarian or vegan, and cooking in either of those styles avoids a lot of food issues for people. 

But around holidays, the expectation around meat intensifies. As soon as the faintest waft of Passover or Rosh Hashanah is in the air, brisket photos invade Facebook and Instagram: sumptuous, steaming dishes accompanied by, “I did it! My first brisket!” — these humblebrags validated by endless comments of “mmm” and “nom nom nom” (mimicking the sounds of chomping on something delicious). 

I have friends who make brisket latkes; I remember the Takosher truck’s brisket taco fondly; and when friends visit me from New York, I often take them to Got Kosher? for sweet or spicy brisket sandwiches.

But why brisket? How did this piece of meat become the legend of holiday tables in non-vegetarian homes and, simultaneously, a darling of the non-Jewish barbecue circuit? As is often the case, the answer draws from the practical and the traditional.

“Brisket is made from the pectoral muscle: it’s tough, and actually not a desirable cut, compared to, say, a filet,” said Anna Hanau, director of communications and outreach at Grow & Behold Kosher Pastured Meats, in an email. “Jews ate it because it was cheap. They then got really good at cooking it, and it became this traditional food, evoking all kinds of memories of Bubbe’s kitchen, etc., etc. It’s expensive now because there is huge demand for it, but it is actually a less-desirable cut, historically.”

Hanau said brisket is “definitely our most popular item,” a best-seller for Passover and year-round. But beyond the seder table, brisket is moonlighting as a star in the non-Jewish food scene — Hanau said it’s “not uncommon to find people standing in hourslong lines for smoked shredded meat.” 

Why is brisket so hot right now, especially as barbecue? Hanau explained graphically (admittedly, I asked) that as brisket smokes for eight to 10 hours or more, “the connective tissues that make it tough break down into these really delicious, unctuous ribbons that marinate the meat. So the popularity of barbecue, and brisket as a meat that can be cooked this way, definitely contributes to brisket’s popularity.” 

Ilya Welfeld, a friend, considers making brisket to be a “bit of a badge of honor.” 

“As a full-time working mother of a brood, we don’t slide smoothly into Shabbos or chag,” she said, referring to holidays meals, in an email. Brisket “seems so legit, so ‘balabusta’ and so big that when I serve it I feel legit as a Jewish woman, mother and caregiver. … Having brisket on the table makes me feel less like an imposter whose cover is ready to be blown any minute.”

“Brisket is Jewish soul food,” said Leah Koenig, author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen” (2015) and a frequent writer about Jewish food, history and culture. “I like to call it the Proustian madeleine of Jewish cooking,” she said in an email that sent me to Google and the discovery that writer Marcel Proust referred to the small French cakes as a symbol of involuntary memory (a memory evoked unexpectedly by a certain taste or experience). 

“Making one’s own brisket, successfully, is like earning a Jewish domestic goddess badge and then prancing proudly around with your newly decorated sash,” said Shannon Sarna, editor of the popular Jewish food blog The Nosher. “It’s a rite of passage for the Jewish cook, male and female alike.” 

Koenig added that the secret to brisket’s appeal is the long cooking time. 

“While the brisket is in the oven, the kitchen — and really the whole house — starts to fill with the heady scent of braised meat, and it brings on this flood of memories,” she said. “Hours, literally hours, before you even get to the table, you’re already swooning.”

Although brisket might seem like a big deal for mostly vegetarians, for regular meat cookers, it is a “kind of ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ foolproof option rather than a great cooking oeuvre,” Hanau said. 

According to Sarna, “it’s really the easiest cut to make because you just need to cook it low and slow with some veggies and liquid. Yet it’s one of the most requested topics on our site at Passover and Rosh Hashanah: How much do I make? Which cut do I buy (second cut!)? How long do I cook it? Brisket continues to befuddle many cooks.”

“Brisket is pretty hard to mess up, which makes it perfect for the busy mom who is running a household and a job and cooking in advance to feed all the various picky kids and their friends,” Hanau continued. 

I don’t have a household to run and kids to herd, but I do have chosen family — my friends who enjoy food, wine and company. So when the East Coast-based Grow & Behold, antibiotics- and hormone-free kosher meat farmers and distributors, offered to send me a brisket, how could I say no? (They have a “Los Angeles Buying Club” through which customers can pick up at Beth Jacob Congregation — — to save on shipping costs, but my box of meat was shipped directly to my house packed in dry ice.)

When I saw the 7.21 pounds of brisket (and various other meats) they’d sent me, I realized there were challenges ahead. An almost vegetarian doesn’t generally have pots big enough in which to cook a brisket, nor does she have a go-to brisket recipe. Ketchup and Coke featured prominently in many online “EASY BRISKET!!!” recipes. But I wanted something more sophisticated than all that processed sugar.

I bought a disposable roast pan and contacted my experts — Hanau, Welfeld, Koenig and Sarna, meat-torneys-at-brisket — to collect their recipes before Frankensteining together my own: salt and pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar and red wine. I added a bunch of cut potatoes and onions, and cooked it for about nine hours. 

The resulting sauce had a tang that recalled the alcohol that had long since cooked away, with a sweetness that ignited the taste buds. My brisket was a success, yielding dinner for eight, leftovers for guests and a week’s worth of meals for me thereafter. (I still have some in my freezer, for the next time I feel my iron levels drop.)

I found myself thinking about the role of tradition in determining our palate’s proclivities, and of an old joke my mother used to tell me about the Jewish mother who would prepare a roast by slicing off the ends of the meat before putting it in the pan. One day her daughter asked why, and she said, “That is our family tradition — my mother always did it.” During the next holiday, the grandmother came to visit. “Grandma,” the girl asked, “why is it our tradition to cut off the ends of the roast?” And Grandma said, “Because the roast didn’t fit in the pan.” 

I love this story — not just because the brisket didn’t fit in my pan, either — but also because it speaks lovingly to our tendency to create value around the things that, often randomly, happen to us in our lives. We assign meaning to things because of their emotional weight, their connection to the people we care about. 

Those of us who make brisket — whether once or on every holiday — do so because members of previous generations did. It probably started as pragmatism, an affordable way to feed children; but brisket evolved into a shout-out to the past and a nod to the opulent and luxurious present, in which a huge cut of kosher meat is expensive but provides great nostalgic flavor. Today, we do it for our families, born and chosen, as our parents did it for the people they loved. And each of us provides her or his own interpretation of “why.”