The start of the football season is always a cause for celebration in my house. Not only do we get to experience the thrills and anguishes of NFL games, we nostalgically enjoy special foods this time of year, like brisket for the Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashana, the new year we celebrate starting at sundown on Wednesday.
Brisket is a large cut of fatty beef that requires a long cooking time, special preparations to make it tender and flavorful, and a lot of people to eat it. It’s not a food for everyday cooking, and priced accordingly, so it became an affordable luxury for Jewish holidays, and eating it on holidays is an enduring tradition.
Cooking a brisket, like playing football, is a highly competitive sport dominated by opinionated commentators who render judgments about how to best prepare the eight to 12-pound colossus. Cook the whole thing or get a smaller piece? Keep on the deckle (a fatty part of the meat cut) or take it off? Salt and pepper only or use a secret family flavoring recipe? Get it at a warehouse grocery store or go to a Kosher butcher? Use the seasoned-with-age roasting pan or get a disposable aluminum foil one? Cook it in advance and slice it, or make it the same day?
The recipe I grew up with was based on innovations in food science that led to the techniques used to prepare the brisket in the modern era of the 1960s. What would be called a nice cut of meat was entombed in aluminum foil, a post World War II product, after it was coated with Lipton’s onion soup mix, an invention of the 1950s thought by many only to be used to make dip for a party, and a dousing of Kitchen Bouquet, a caramel flavored liquid featured in the Paris Exhibition of 1889, followed by a long slow roast in the oven. But there are countless ways to flavor and tenderize the meat, not counting barbecue, which is an entirely separate genre of brisket-making.
Regardless of the exact formula one uses, there’s a fine art to making this dish that I've yet to master. The brisket guru in our family, Aunt Estelle, made this dish almost weekly. The smart cousins knew when to stop at her suburban split ranch home for a delicious sandwich. After we were married, my husband and I visited one Thursday afternoon, my aunt’s cleaning and cooking day. Bingo! We had timed our visit well. My smiling, apron-clad aunt welcomed us into the aromatic kitchen where we saw a hot brisket resting in a pool of juices in the roasting pan on the stove top. My husband was salivating. Aunt Estelle, who thought my husband was “a nice boy,” offered him a sandwich. She probably worried I wasn’t feeding him well. She then reached into the freezer for a small wrapped portion of meat which she heated up and put on fresh challah before serving it. Nice-boy status wasn’t enough for my husband to get the first cut of meat. She was saving the new brisket for my cousin Howard who was on his way home for a visit.
My friend Jim once confided in me his best recipe for brisket: marinate a roll of paper towels in Kitchen Bouquet, wrap it in tinfoil and then cook it all day. My recitation of the recipe at a family dinner was met with stunned silence. Brisket apparently is not to be taken lightly. You can cut it with a fork, I said. Glares all around.
I have a friend who is going to make her first brisket ever for a new boyfriend. A gutsy move. As in making a Butterball turkey, there is a hotline to call and a U.S. government website full of brisket food safety tips. I will give my friend Aunt Estelle’s other well known and easier family recipes: black bottom cupcakes, fruit compote, glazed carrots. I have my beloved aunt’s recipe cards, stand mixer, cupcake tins and aprons, cherished possessions that endure. But I would give anything for another one of her frozen sandwiches! Even if I made a sandwich using fresh cooked brisket, in my memory Aunt Estelle’s frozen meat will always taste better.