46. The Brisket Fairies

46. The Brisket Fairies

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Brisket Fairies

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

~Jane Howard

Well, of course everyone awaits the arrival of Santa Claus… but not too many can say they have been visited by the Brisket Fairies. Hanukah was imminent, a mere matzo ball away, and I decided to take on the holiday, whole hog (to use a non-kosher phrase). For years, I’d wangled my way out of the brisket preparation by hosting the party, making the latkes, side dishes and desserts; but now at forty-five years of age, I was about to face my coming-of-age brisket.

As a child, and for every holiday I could remember, my family ate this roasted fatty meat drenched in onions.

“Mmmm,” they’d kvell and moan, wiping the oily gravy off their chins.

“Eeech,” I’d say, pushing the meat to the far left of my plate, making sure it wouldn’t make my crisp latke soggy.

“What? You’d think you were adopted,” my parents would scoff. “Try it. It’s delicious.”

“See, that’s what happens when you don’t breastfeed,” I’d retort, but it was too late. It was clear I was one brisket gene short.

Whether it skipped a generation or snuck through my husband’s DNA I’ll never know, but that gene clearly deposited itself in my daughter’s young taste buds.

“Mmmm,” she echoed the familiar kvell with her first bite. “Mommy,” she said wiping her chin, “why don’t you ever make this?”

Wow, I thought, there really is no escaping your cultural heritage; not only did she get the brisket gene, she got the Jewish guilt one, too. That was it—like it or not, I was going to have to learn to make brisket. So I headed straight for one of the many treasured things my mother willed me. Her cookbook.

As I thumbed through the sticky pages, breathing in memories of every oil- and chocolate-smudged recipe, it was obvious I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for. Trying to decipher my mother’s cryptic handwriting, cross-outs and arrows was something akin to solving the puzzle from The Da Vinci Code. So I called my cousin Susie in Dayton.

“Call my mother,” she said upon hearing the trigger word “brisket.” “She’s the maven. I swear I think my parents are making ten briskets right now.”

To know Aunt Lois and Uncle Gil is to know such pure unadulterated joy it’s downright depressing. Married for fifty years and in their late seventies, they are excruciatingly ebullient, perennially perky, and nauseatingly nice.

“So I hear you’re the goddess of grease,” I say without a hello. “I mean the maven of meats. The best darn brisket maker in the whole family. Have I garnered your graces? Have I paid you due homage? What do you think? How about sharing your recipe?”

“Recipe?” Aunt Lois says, her voice sounding well-marinated in praise. “Recipe, schmecipe! We’ll make you one and send it.”

“You’ll send me one? You’ll make me a brisket and send it?” I repeat, certain that I heard this wrong.

“Of course,” she says as if everybody does this. “We’re mailing one to New York for Alex, one to San Francisco for Allison, one to Chicago for Ben and one to Boston for Michael. Oh, plus we’re sending Allison a turkey.”

“You’re cooking and sending meat around the country? You’re kidding, right? Is that legal? Is it safe?”

“Oh, honey, we’ve been doing it for years.”

“Alrighty then, mail me a brisket. I’ll have a party.”

Each day I checked the mailbox. Nothing. As my party date neared I made plans for the back-up salmon I might have to grill. Then, pulling into the driveway one day, my daughter yelled, “Mom, there’s something big at the front door.”

Sitting on my doorstep was an official U.S. mail basket, the type postal workers use to haul piles of letters. Contained inside was a package oozing a small odiferous puddle. It was either a brisket or a message from the mob, but one sniff and those onions gave it away. I rushed inside to open the package.

The brisket lay sliced and perfectly arranged in its oven-ready foil container. The meat was pretty frozen but the gravy was in definite thaw mode.

“Eeeww. I can’t serve this, can I?” I poked at the meat imagining every festering foodborne cootie. I could already picture the newspaper headlines: “Hanukah Horror: Entire Party Hospitalized when Brisket Goes Bad.”

“Uh, hi Aunt Lois. Umm the brisket arrived today. Well it looks great—really fabulous. Thank you sooo much. The only thing is, it’s a little drippy, you know—defrosted.”

“That’s perfect!” she says and means it.

“Really? Don’t you think it’s a little scary?”

“Honey, we’ve never had a brisket go bad. Just refrigerate it and heat it up when you’re ready. Enjoy!” she chirped and hung up.

Just to be sure, I called Susie again.

“What do you think? Is it safe?”

“I have no idea. My kids always get them drippy, but they eat them and they’re okay. I think my parents are brisket fairies or something. I’m sure it’ll be perfect. It always is.”

That was four years ago. It was perfect and the only thing we suffered from was overeating.

Oh, I finally did face my coming-of-age brisket and as it turned out, it was pretty simple, especially because I could make it and freeze it long in advance, letting the flavors marry. But every year during our holiday preparations I enlist my daughter’s help because you can bet I’ll never be calling her to say, “the brisket is in the mail.”

~Tsgoyna Tanzman

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