We’re working on a custom book cookbook project with my longtime, good friend Ev Small, originally from Greenville, Ohio, now living in Washington, DC. It’s called Stirring Up Stories. (Ev was integral in helping Katharine Graham write her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History.)
Ev’s thought was there’s likely a story behind a favorite recipe. I think she’s right. She has about forty recipes and stories so far. It made me think I might have one to add:
A week before I was to be married, it occurred to me that my new husband and I were likely to starve. I had not the first notion of how to cook; at 22, my culinary stockpile was heating cans of Franco-American spaghetti and boiling hot dogs. So, I did the unthinkable: I asked my mother for help.
My mother and I were never on great terms. One, she was a Jewish mother. Asking a Jewish mother for help was to prepare onesself for getting a sailing ship to fish in a pond. Two, she was a nurse. That was like asking for a band-aid and ending up with recommendations from the Mayo Clinic.
When she suggested we sit down with my Aunt Roz (a twofer), thoughts of starving became thoughts of drowning. But I was desperate.
“Vat vud yul like ta cuk, my dahlink?” Aunt Roz asked. She loved to bake. I believe she thought we could live on Mandelbread and butter cookies. I went for the butter cookies.
“Roz, they’ll need something substantial,” said Mom. “How about my sweet and sour meatballs, honey?” They were a favorite of the Mah-jong club ladies and my dad’s bridge club. Often they’d appear at the hors d’oeuvre table at family bar mitzvahs. I loved them. “Sure,” I said.
Sweet and sour meatballs and butter cookies. Hey, this wasn’t so bad. But I thought my new husband, a Protestant from Ohio, was going to get kind of thin on this short list. His grandmother’s after-school snack for him was pan-fried pork chops, mashed potatoes, and homemade applesauce. I was at a severe disadvantage here.
“Do you have any meat recipes? Pork chops, maybe?” A look shot between them that could have severed a pig in two. “No, dahlink,” said Aunt Roz. “No pork recipes.”
“I know,” said Mom. “How about brisket? Marcy, you always like it when I make brisket. You know, the one with the potatoes and carrots and tomato sauce?” Now that sounded like a meal my new husband would eat. “Okay, let me have it.”
And so, along with spaghetti sauce, chicken soup, potato salad, cranberry mold, and giblets, beef brisket came with me into married life. Or tried to.
I’ll make this brief. After all, this is a recipe, not a memoir. But it should be noted that for several months after our marriage, we lived at my husband’s home in Greenville,Ohio. I really didn’t expect this, but when we pulled into my in-law’s home after our sixteen hour trip from Sharon,Massachusetts, I figured it out. The bad news was, this was a surprise. The good news was, I could postpone cooking.
But halfway through a summer of staying home with my thirteen-year-old brother-in-law while everyone else was at work, I found the courage to approach my new mother-in-law with a request to make dinner for the family. Her look of doubt was not unwarranted. I was untried, Jewish, East Coast, and socially insecure. I was going to cook for her very serious husband, herself, and four sons? “Well, all right,” she said, kindly.
I don’t remember how I bought the ingredients. Perhaps the butcher down the street found the brisket for me. Brisket was not a common Greenville request. I just remember standing in the kitchen with my little recipe book filled with a hundred empty pages… except for six.
I had before me a recipe that read:
One three-pound beef brisket, single lean (double is fatty)
1 large green pepper, sliced
1 large onion
6 potatoes, peeled, cut in half
6 carrots, peeled, cut in half
1 cup ketchup
Coarse salt to taste
- Sear meat on all sides in large heavy skillet. Remove from pan.
- Place pepper and onion on bottom of skillet.
- Place meat on top.
- Cover tightly and simmer for two hours.
- Remove meat to cool slightly on cutting board.
- Place potatoes and carrots on top of cooked onions and green pepper. Add salt.
- Add ketchup and stir slightly.
- On a cutting board, slice meat against the grain.
- Places slices on top of vegetables in the pan.
- Cover and simmer for another hour until potatoes and carrots are tender.
I did exactly as instructed. Then I set the table, everyone came home, and with very polite, Midwestern manners, six family members and I sat down to a perfectly burned, rock-hard dinner of brisket-as-shoe leather. No one said a word. The chewing seemed to go on forever.
I was embarrassed and humiliated. The boys just quietly smiled. Slightly raised eyes went towards my new husband. Luck to you, they clearly intimated.
“I’m so sorry. That was terrible, I know. I’m really so sorry.”
I didn’t cook for the rest of the summer. Who knows what I could have done to sweet and sour meatballs, never mind potato salad?
Without cell phones, calling long distance from their home was not an option. But I desperately wanted to ask my mother what went wrong. On the other hand, not telling her meant not admitting I couldn’t even follow a recipe.
I didn’t try cooking brisket again for two years. I had other people to feed: a baby whom I could keep alive on formula, rice cereal, and jars of baby food; a husband who had never eaten spaghetti but liked my spaghetti sauce; graduate school friends who would eat anything I cooked just to have someone make it for them. I figured out (through trial and error) the difference between broiling and baking a chicken. I found a recipe for chicken curry and we ate it regularly. I tried recipes from magazines, but only if they had less than six ingredients.
Then one day, in a casual conversation with my mom, I asked her about The Brisket. I said, “You know, I lost that brisket recipe you gave me. (Lie.) Could you give it to me again?”
“What do you mean you lost it? It’s in that little recipe book I got you. Did you lose the whole book?!”
“No, Mom. I must have spilled something on the page. (Lie.) I can’t read it. (Lie.)
She gave me the entire recipe again. I followed it verbatim in my recipe book while she told me. This time, she remembered to include a simple, yet vital ingredient.
A cup of water, added when the meat and green peppers and onions were cooking.
A cup of water: the difference between burned and tender; the difference between dry and moist; the difference between shoe leather and brisket; the difference between humiliation and satisfaction.
From then on, brisket became my signature meal. It became the Sunday noon meal, the winter doldrums meal. It traveled roads, state routes, and interstates as the meal to drive to college dorms, to serve at unmarried children’s apartments, to provide to sick friends, and to friends going through separation, divorce, and sadness.
Recently, it’s been taken to the nursing home where my mother, now 94, has eaten it the only way she can: pureed and spoon fed, while she makes soft “um” and “ah” sounds with each bite. You cannot imagine the satisfaction…for both of us.
Forty years of briskets. You’d think by now I’d have thought of something new.
But who wants to risk missing an ingredient?