Nonfiction Series

Do You Have a Story Behind a Recipe? We'd Like to Read It.

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:

 Road Brisket

 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

  1. Sear meat on all sides in large heavy skillet. Remove from pan.
  2. Place pepper and onion on bottom of skillet.
  3. Place meat on top.
  4. Cover tightly and simmer for two hours.
  5. Remove meat to cool slightly on cutting board.
  6. Place potatoes and carrots on top of cooked onions and green pepper. Add salt.
  7. Add ketchup and stir slightly.
  8. On a cutting board, slice meat against the grain.
  9. Places slices on top of vegetables in the pan.
  10. 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.

We survived.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions of a Reader with a Smartphone

 My work with Orange Frazer Press has required me to become a social media junkie. I  come into the office and settle down at the Mac adjacent to our head publisher’s office.  Sipping my usual 12 ounce cup of Highlander Grogg, I open up my first three tabs  unconsciously—Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter greeting me with their usual  smorgasbord of information, relevant and irrelevant. If I’m feeling particularly  focused that morning I will immediately switch to using Facebook as the Orange  Frazer Custom Books page, tune my Twitter stream to my private list of “publishing-  types,” my Gmail to my work account, and sip away with satisfaction, knowing that I  have trounced my soft addiction to distraction for the morning. If I’m feeling particularly, well, less focused, this switch will take a bit longer, I will linger a bit more, open up additional tabs, browse a few more articles from the Times... And it isn’t just me. Yes, I am particularly built for distraction: I own my own laptop, carry an Android smartphone, have at least seven different social media profiles, and an unlimited texting plan that allows me to communicate with as many people, in as many characters, as I so choose. But so do most people my age. Just yesterday, while reading a Fast Company article about the now-common effects of “Phantom Vibration Syndrome” I was reminded, once again, that I am not alone. Have you ever felt your phone vibrating, just to check and realize that no one was calling you? Disappointing, right. And worrisome, actually. In fact there have been a number of articles recently about the mental effects of such impulses. If you think about it, we are now hardwired for distraction. We wait for the interruption of a text, a call, an email, a chat, and we have instinctual reactions to their particular sounds—the beeps, buzzes, bings, and bleeps of our technology. Was anyone else rocked off balance a bit when Facebook changed the tone of the chat notification? No longer the resounding “pop” of a Facebook chat, but rather, a very Gmail-esqe bing. It was downright unsettling.

Our reliance on interruption is very unique. Never before have we been so attuned to such shallow external stimulators, reacting immediately like Pavlovian dogs whenever we hear that one precious chime of communication. And it has a lasting effect. In an article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, these enduring effects are described as “nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought,” damaging our long-term focus in ways that, frighteningly enough, may be partially irreparable.

And so what does any of this have to do with publishing? It has everything to do with publishing. Because, it has everything to do with our ability to read. As a kid I could read for hours, even full days. I distinctly remember shutting myself in my room and sitting in front of my door with a book, so that my mom couldn’t even open it to call me to dinner, or give me new chores. Those days are, sadly, gone. In the past two years, I’ve noticed my reading time steadily decrease. I am still reading great amounts (believe me, an English department will require nothing less) but I read for shorter periods of time, an hour at most without break. I find that I have developed noticeable technology “tics.” Every few pages I check my phone sitting next to me, press the right hand button to light up the display, brush my finger lightly across to unlock it, and flip through a couple of screens—almost unconsciously—returning to the page only moments later without even recognizing that I’ve looked away. Even worse is when I have my laptop next to me and my Facebook open. Every few minutes I wave my cursor over the homescreen, allowing new posts to magically fill themselves into the real-time feed. I don’t care what they are. I don’t even really want to be on Facebook, but it’s habit.

I have trouble focusing long enough to read, and I even have the audacity to call myself a reader. I can only imagine how frustrating this is for those who have no previous inclination to read, no special affinity for books. It would be downright impossible. And publishers are getting it. The recent wave of e-books testifies to nothing less. Books have become compatible with our fragmented concentration. Don’t know which book you want to pack for your plane ride? Pack three hundred on your Kindle and you’re good to go. Convenience trumps tradition and we’re back on track to read.

But that isn’t the end goal of the e-book. With this new medium has come a new responsibility for publishers to cater to it, develop it, optimize it. Just look to Penguin’s newest “amplified” e-book on Jack Kerouac. You can now read On the Road in an entirely new dimension, with recorded audio, period photographs, and interactive maps of his trip West. New York Times’ praise of the book is quoted by Penguin and could not say it more clearly: “Tricked out with more fancy bells and whistles than a BMW M5...pretty much the only thing missing is the chance to hear the novel read aloud by that sexy-voiced woman from your GPS”. This is the age of the walking, talking e-book, and the bells and whistles of the “amplified” e-book know their audience perfectly. It is the audience of tabbed browsers, the readers who need more information, in smaller pieces, delivered to them in real time, all the time. This audience will download this book to their iPad, Kindle, Nook, or smart phone and read, listen, watch, and consume the story in an entirely new way. And frankly, this audience is me—it’s me, and it’s you.

So what do we do about it? Adapt. At this point there is little else we can do. I am still a lover of traditional books, and will always treasure the look and feel of an old hardcover copy, worn in by many page-turns and more-than-a-few previous readers. But I’m also a modern-day consumer, and a reader that is desperate to continue reading, learning, and experiencing books, even if it is in new, unforeseen ways. So don’t be surprised if Orange Frazer enters the “amplified” book world; it will certainly happen when the time is right and the product is pleasing. The medium will never change their attention to perfection, beauty, quality, and storytelling, but it will cater to, perhaps, a broader audience. And we, the nicked, fragmented, distracted readers of the 21st century, will accept these new editions with excitement, but hopefully, also, with a healthy dose of occasional technology detox, and a good ‘ole hardcover book.

 

And in that vein, some tips for the easily distracted:

 

Miranda July: The Future on Nowness.com.