By Stacey Zisook Robinson
When Passover approaches, I start thinking about brisket. In my family, which managed to show its devotion to God mainly through food and only peripherally through prayer and ritual, brisket meant holiday and celebration. It was, for us, the 11th commandment.
Mostly, I’m thinking about my mother. She died last year, just after Yom Kippur. Funny – she and my dad moved out of state over 20 years ago. Passover became “my” holiday, and parts of the family traipsed over to my house for the seder (with the text usually rewritten in some creative fashion by me). Mom and Dad did their own thing, with their own family newly extended by distance. Still, this year I’m thinking mostly of mom, and missing her, and softly grieving.
Maybe because of that, because I want to make sure that all the family traditions get passed down and remembered – and that my mother, and my bubbies, and all the unknown great-times-infinity bubbies and aunts and cousins are remembered and loved – I pull my son into the mix.
He’s 19 now, in college, working hard to adult while still clinging just a little to his boyhood. I want to give him the full picture, the recipe as it was passed down to me, with all the Yiddishisms and old country bubbie-meisses. But as my Talmud teacher tells me, often, the heart of the discussion is never about the words written on the page; no, it’s the commentary and the argument and the gigantic canvas that peek through, if you have the eyes to see.
So, my beloved boy – you get the text and the commentary, enough to know that, when all is said and done, and the brisket is roasting and the soup is simmering, and the steam carries the bewitching scent of dill and onions and some indefinable something that can only be love, you will learn this lesson as you’ve learned all the others through the years: Family endures and stretches and grows, connecting us all, every generation, with love.
Mom – I miss you, but you taught me good. You reminded me, every year, exactly how to prepare the banquet, knowing all along that it had nothing to do with the food. I pass this on now to the next generation, to my son, who will now begin his own study of this family Talmud, the one of my bubbie’s brisket. I got this recipe from her. I’m sure she got it from hers, who got it from hers, who got it from hers. You get the idea: a long, forever line of amazing and strong and devoted women who cooked and fed and made sure that, no matter what was going on in the world, she would make sure that there was enough, and then some.
Bubbie's Brisket Recipe
(with commentary, as told to my beloved son)
Get a brisket, ½-1 pound per person.
Commentary: Top cut is more expensive, but my bubbie swore by it. The range is big because brisket has a magical shrinking quality. One year, you plan for half a pound per person (because last year, there was so much left over!), and the brisket shrinks enough that you contemplate leaving it all for the guests and not eating any of it yourself. Or, if you’re my mother, you buy a second brisket, just to be sure.
Rinse and pat dry.
Commentary: Remember the movie “There Will Be Blood”? Do this part in the sink. Trust me.
Add a few yellow onions, sliced.
Commentary: Use a mandolin if you want to be fancy. Otherwise, cut away, until you have enough to layer the bottom of the pan, and then enough to layer the top of the brisket.
Place a layer of sliced onions in the bottom of your roasting pan.
No commentary necessary – just throw ‘em in the roasting pan and be done.
Make a dry rub using paprika, garlic salt, and salt and pepper.
Commentary: Please don’t ask for exact amounts; no self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to measure an ingredient if her life depended on it. These are things you’re just supposed to know. So the brisket should be covered with the paprika. As for the other dry ingredients, “enough” is as specific as I can get here. As my bubbie would say, “You’ll know.” Reminder: all seasonings should be on the top and bottom of the brisket.
The other rub: ketchup.
Commentary: Yup – ketchup. Slather this all over the brisket. It’s a messy job. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Top brisket with more onions and sprinkle a packet of dry onion soup mix on top.
Commentary: Depending on the size of the brisket, you might want to use two packets. Again, this is cooking by sight.
Mix about ¼-½ cup of ketchup with about a cup of water. Pour this over and around the brisket. Cover pan tightly with foil and roast at 350 for several hours.
Commentary: So you finally get to measure something! You only need to actually measure the first time or three until this, too, is cooking by sight. As for how long – What, you thought my bubbie would provide some exactness at this point in our cooking adventure? I usually cook the brisket for four or five hours. This is something that cannot be overcooked! You know when it’s done? When it smells like brisket, when it smells like it’s done.
Take it out of the oven. Let cool. Refrigerate overnight, if not longer.
Translation: Remember to open the foil away from your face! There will be steam. (This is a bubbie quote, akin to “Blow on the soup; it’s hot." Behind all the words though, is the sentiment “I love you.” Bubbie spoke many languages: Yiddish, English, food. I miss them all.)
Slice the brisket while cold.
Commentary: I can’t stress this enough. No self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to use an electric carving knife. Cut it cold – but before you do, remove the hard orange shell (the polite way to say “fat”). Dispose. Taste a piece (or two). This is the “testing for poison” phase. This is a critical step. Do not over-test, however; you do have guests arriving soon. Replace sliced brisket in the pan with all the onions and the juice (and assorted vegetables, as desired) and cover tightly with foil.
Place in oven heated to 325-350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Commentary: A lower heat won’t hurt. Again, this is cooking by additional senses. I usually keep the brisket in the oven for another two to three hours. The desired doneness is when the meat “fels’n part,” Yiddish-ish for “falls apart.” Brisket should be fork-tender; no knives required (just as matzah balls should be hard as rocks).
Commentary: On a huge platter. It is totally okay to forget the gravy, which is really just the pan juices poured into a gravy boat. This creates additional opportunity to apologize for the meal, and for the guests to show their love and tell you how amazing the food is. If you've planned it correctly, you will have made too much, which is exactly right.
The onions can stay with the brisket; the other veggies, if any, can be placed around the meat or in a separate serving dish. Your call. Bubbie often forgot to serve these, but had enough other vegetables (all of which, for some reason, included things like honey, raisins, marshmallow and pineapple). The salad never came out until five bites before everyone was ready to burst, with cries of “Oy! The salad!” Wine and juice got poured and drunk and spilled. Matzah crumbs littered the table and the carpet and more than a few laps.
The kids fidgeted and their parents allowed them some semblance of freedom until the inevitable escalation from happy-to-see-the-cousins exuberance to a true-to-life demonstration of Moses making an example of the Egyptian taskmaster. The adults silently pleaded with the seder leader to speed it up, and wondered if we really have to talk about what the Hagaddah says the rabbis said on their sleepover.
And all around you is the happy chaos of a family celebration, in whatever iteration your family settles into – family by birth, by the beloved family you find along the way, by the orphans, acquaintances and disparate others who may have had no other place to spend the holiday – and you sort of get a sense of that original Pesach meal, all jumbled and joyous and not quite perfect as you rushed around, stretching your legs on the slippery new place of Freedom, and maybe no one knew everyone around, so you all just garnered together, to eat and remember and thank and hope and pray and love.
So, this is the recipe – the pared-down, out-loud version that was given to me, handed down much as the Torah went from God to Moses to Joshua to a thousand generations of our people, to the niece who chanted so beautifully at her bat mitzvah not too long ago, or the son who is struggling with its ideas, and perhaps this recipe goes back to Sinai as well. Perhaps.
And every time I make this brisket, I remember, and give thanks and feel love. And then we gather, the chaos of family and friends and kids and love, and we remember – just as though we were there –and we tell the story of our redemption, and we tell the story of our family, and we celebrate with brisket and matzah and stories and love.
Thank you to my bubbies, both of them. Your memories have been a blessing to us all.
An earlier version of this essay was originally published on the author's blog, and was adapted and reprinted with permission.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a poet and essayist who lives in Chicago with her teenage son and their cat. In addition to managing a small Jewish women's non-profit, she has a poet-in-residence program, working with adults and teens to explore the connection between poetry and prayer. She is a regular contributor to Kveller, the Reform Judaism blog and several other websites. She is the author of "Dancing in the Palm of God's Hand: Reflections on Meaning, Faith and Doubt" and "A Remembrance of Blue: 36 Poems for Prayer and Celebration." She is currently working on her next book, tentatively called "Rise, Poetry of Protest and Change."