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You Are What You Eat: Finding family, Companionship, and Myself in the Passover Brisket

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

As I write this, smells of savory barbecue fill my house. They emanate from my oven, where I am currently slow-cooking a brisket. For the uninitiated, a brisket is the traditional meat that’s served at most Jewish holidays. It’s a tough cut of meat, requiring long, low heat to tenderize it into delicious strips that fall apart on the journey from plate to mouth. This dish holds a special place in my heart and my stomach. Just like the envelope of tinfoil currently wrapped around my brisket, my own heritage is sealed tight within this special recipe.

As I’ve mentioned, brisket is a traditional Jewish dish. This is because it used to be a cheap cut of meat that even my shtetl-dwelling ancestors could afford as a special holiday treat. I know this, because my Nanny, Tilly Paisak (Yes her last name is a transliteration of Passover) brought this dish with her to America when she took a boat from somewhere in Poland (or Austria, or Russia — ownership of this area of Eastern Europe changed on a daily basis…) and landed first on Ellis Island, settling shortly thereafter in Coney Island. Nanny was my great-grandmother and it was in her kitchen that my mother learned to cook. Recipes were not precise in this kitchen. Measurements were approximations and cooking time was registered by a good poke and a sniff. My mom learned all of her cooking at Nanny’s side, just as I learned all of my cooking by my mother’s side. It wasn’t just recipes that were were taught in our kitchen, it was Tradition! (To be read as if performing Fiddler on the Roof!). Every dish, every instruction was a lesson in who we were, where we came from and what we were made of. Potatoes, onions, flour — simple ingredients that were as delicious and sustaining in the old country as they are here and now.

Ah! But why then, do I have a *barbecue* brisket in my oven? This is where my full heritage and a new tradition emerges. My father is not Jewish. He is a lapsed Protestant from Texas. And when my mother married him, a new tradition infiltrated our kitchen, inspired by his mother. Grandma Helen; one of two twin girls born in the Texas panhandle, who according to legend, entered the world so tiny and young that they had to be warmed by the heat of an oven to survive their first months. It’s from that Texas side that our Jewish brisket took a barbecue detour, getting slathered with Woody’s Cookin’ Sauce before being tucked into the oven.

Thanks to this year’s special circumstances, it is only me and my boyfriend, and not a host of family and friends around the Passover table. Perhaps it’s for this reason I decided that I *had* to cook a Passover brisket. I suppose it’s a way to invite — through tradition— a host of guests who are always able to attend in spirit. And so, I donned a shmata (that’s yiddish for apron) and FaceTimed my Mom so that I could cook by her side again as I attempted to make my first “solo” brisket. I held the brisket up to the camera and she appraised it as good, and told me how to wrap it in tinfoil and how to smother it with Woody’s Cookin’ Sauce. But alas! There was no Woody’s to be had in the house! No problem, we’ll improvise! By way of a recipe, she read me the ingredients on the side of the empty bottle she had used to make her own holiday brisket. The raw ingredients were all available in my pantry, so I set about making a potion of Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, brown sugar, tomato paste and a dash of fig molasses (because, hey, why not? ) praying that it might turn into something resembling the original.

I stirred and salted and peppered and simmered my sauce on the stove until it smelled like something familiar. I let the sauce cool a bit as I prepared my tin foil and baking sheets. In keeping with Nanny’s loose way of writing a recipe, I can tell you dear reader, that you should let your homemade barbecue brisket sauce cool for exactly as long as it takes to draw all the ingredients you added to it (about 8 minutes…). By the time you add the watercolor to the page, you’ll be ready to smother your brisket and pop it in the oven.

Family Sedar Zoom -- Joyful Chaos

I’m still waiting for the brisket to finish cooking, but I can already tell I like this new recipe. Passover is a DIY service meant to be performed at home. It is a meal that tells a story, each item on the Sedar plate represents a part of a story that played out long ago which we are called to reenact and remember each year at this holiday. But it’s not just the dishes on the Sedar plate that have special meaning, it’s all the dishes on the table. And this particular one, for me, tells an important story; the perfect merger of traditions — old and new — slow roasted into one delicious dish. And if you are what you eat, then I am my own brisket. A saucy Texas cowgirl BBQ served piping hot for Passover supper, a humble cut of meat that’s at home on the range or the Big Apple. A merger of people that came here long ago and who left a recipe for how to follow in their footsteps, thankfully, leaving room for a few new ingredients along the way.

Me, Myself and My Brisket. A Self Portrait in Meat.


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