At our Passover Seder we take turns reading the epic tale of Hebrew slaves toiling in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, and we talk about Moses receiving the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai, and how such laws can define and unite a people. But the part of the Seder, that truly connects my family to our faith is the brisket. Every year, as we pass the plates, I tell my kids the mini-odyssey of the meal before them.
Our brisket recipe comes from family friend Ruth Silverman. She learned how to make brisket from her mother, Helen Schwartz, who was born in Hungary in 1898. Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe was home to most of the world’s Jews back then, and most of them were very poor. For Helen’s family, and others like them, brisket was an infrequent treat because cows were raised for their milk, not their beef.
If an old dairy cow was butchered in time for Passover, the tough 6-pound plank of meat from the animal’s chest was a holiday blessing. It fed a lot of people and required only a pot of water on a low fire, some paprika and garlic, and a few handfuls of chopped onions and carrots to make it delicious.
When Helen was 16, she left her shetl and made her way across Europe and the Atlantic ocean to the boom town of Gloversville, New York, which was then the world capital of glove making. She married and raised three daughters. The butcher in Gloversville always had brisket, and by the 1920s, Helen could afford to experiment with a range of canned, packaged and processed foods. She revised the family recipe with brown sugar, canned tomatoes, beef broth, and garlic powder.
In 1944, Helen’s daughter Ruth eloped with Air Force co-pilot Barrett Silverman, and they had three children right after Barrett got home from the war. Ruth made her mother’s brisket all the time, and she added to the pot the food sensation of the late ‘40s: dried onion soup mix.
The recipe finally reached me in 1992, when I married the nephew of Ruth’s best friend.
Of course, Helen and Ruth have not been the only ones to recognize the potential in a brisket. This toughest of all cuts has attracted the imaginations of many revered food authorities. The editors of The New York Times Jewish Cookbook and Gourmet magazine, for instance, offer recipes that call for coffee, barbeque sauce, ginger snaps, soy sauce, and dried porcini bouillon cubes. These new-fangled recipes may be yummy, but it the brisket with a multi-generational saga makes me ver clempt.
My kids are 11 and l6, and they have ingested brisket’s big life lessons. They know that our brisket is an edible bridge that connects us to Jewish families of centuries past and half a world away. They also know what a blessing it is that I can spend time thinking about brisket, instead of needing to pray for a dairy cow to wrap up her career in time for Passover. And for me, this is the point at which brisket becomes sacred, because thinking about it, I believe, is a form of prayer in itself.
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