86. My First Hanukkah

86. My First Hanukkah

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

My First Hanukkah

With all other foods, there’s a right way and a wrong way. With brisket, there’s only “my way.”

~Psychotherapist and top brisket maker Phyllis Cohen

Michael and I dated for six years before we married, so I had been to Hanukkah celebrations at his parents’ house. I’d seen the beautiful table settings, the traditional linens, the special platters and the beautiful family menorah. The celebrations were wonderful events and I appreciated being a part of them. I was from a family of English and Irish origin, raised a non-denominational Christian, and in my family Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day were the big celebrations. It was fun to learn about other traditions.

One month after Michael and I were married, I decided to take on the task of hosting the first night of the eight-night celebration at our house. Just like my mother-in-law, Barbara, I love entertaining. Hosting parties of any kind is right up my alley and I relished the thought of planning and hosting this new kind of party.

I enjoyed all the planning. There were decorations, little gifts to give my new family, candles, dreidels, chocolate coins and the food, including the star of the show… the brisket! We all loved Barbara’s brisket and now it was my turn to make one. I was a good cook so I wasn’t worried.

Next came the shopping. I made my list and, to borrow from a Christmas song, checked it twice, and decided I had all the fun stuff. Now it was time to hit the market. Potatoes, lots of oil in which to fry the latkes, carrots, onions, horseradish, wine, applesauce and donuts. One more thing on the list… the brisket. With my shopping cart almost overflowing (our family never goes hungry), I headed to the meat aisle. I really wanted to impress my new family, so I picked out the biggest brisket I saw. It was funny how Barbara had never mentioned to me that brisket comes in a sealed bag and already has its own spices in with it. I called Michael to make sure I was getting the right thing, and he assured me there is only one type of brisket. Great. I threw it in the cart and headed for home.

The next morning, the first thing I did was put the brisket in. It needed to slow cook all day to be really tender and juicy. The spices that came with it smelled familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them. No matter—I had this under control.

I busied myself for the rest of the day decorating, setting the table, wrapping the presents, placing the menorah, and even printing myself a phonetic reading of the Hanukkah prayer so I could say it with my new family as we lit the first candle. The brisket smelled delicious as it slow-cooked its way through the day. It was making me hungry. I hoped it was as good as Barbara’s.

As I was frying the last of the latkes, the family arrived, ready to eat. Everyone commented on how beautiful everything looked. The table was set all in blue, white and silver, the traditional colors of Hanukkah. I even made a Hanukkah bush out of branches that I spray-painted silver, put into a vase and wrapped with blue and white twinkle lights. “It looks perfect,” my mother-in-law said. Ah. I could relax. Everyone sat down at the table and I began to bring the food in, reserving a space in the center of the table for the brisket. Everyone was oohing and aahing at the dishes as I brought them in. It got a little quieter as I set the brisket down. I thought that everyone’s mouth must have been watering too much to mention the brisket.

I sat, we said a prayer, made a toast and began passing the food. Everyone took a lot of everything. With the very first taste of my brisket, I recognized the flavor. This was not traditional Hanukkah brisket at all. It was a corned beef brisket like my family ate on St. Patrick’s Day! Everyone was watching and they all saw me realize what I had done, my English-Irish heritage trumping all my plans for a traditional Jewish brisket! There was complete silence. My face was turning red. Just then Barbara declared that this was the best brisket she’d ever had… even though it was corned beef. And, as with almost all of our family gatherings, we all started laughing hysterically.

The next year, when I was brave enough to host Hanukkah again, someone mysteriously put a little leprechaun at my place setting. I think it’s safe to say that my first Hanukkah was anything but forgettable.

~Crescent LoMonaco

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