Friday, June 05, 2015

We Love Mom: Gloria's brisket

Photograph by Eugene Ahn

I grew up in Tampa, Florida, the armpit of the “Armpit State.” Also known as the home of Magic Mike, the strip club-loving city is also known for its shocking lack of quality restaurants. The eatery closest to the house that my parents have lived in since 1986 is an Applebee’s.

Thankfully, at home I was fed better than what the city could otherwise offer. My mother, Gloria, retired last year after a long and distinguished career as an educator — a reading specialist. I credit her good genes with fueling my love for reading, writing, and trying to avoid arithmetic. She was raised in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side — something that made me very jealous as a child, and still does now. The fact that she and my father, Herb, chose to move to a suburb of Tampa instead of living a New York City life will always mystify me, especially since that suburb has 20,000 residents and only one good restaurant. Still, they seem happy there.

What’s so great about my mom’s cooking is that when she cooks for me and my dad, she gives it her all. She puts love in it, which is expensive at Publix these days — it’s the exclusive domain of moms, dads, and other loved ones who are doing their best so you don’t yell at them. Her brisket whisks me back to a simpler time, when the world was still new and we all shared a love for Bill Cosby. It’s also so good: there’s beer in there. Also barbecue sauce. Even healthy junk, like carrots.

Our people eat, and most of my favorite childhood food memories are holiday-based. Now that I’m living in Louisville, Kentucky, it’s harder for me to get good hamantaschen, latkes, or matzo brei. My parents are at their most authentically Jewish when it’s time to prepare food for the holidays, by which I mean we eat even better (“more” means “better,” right?) than ever. And because I live away from their home, it also means extra packages delivered to me.

+ vegetable oil
4–5 lbs first-cut beef brisket
1 clove garlic, crushed
+ salt and pepper to taste (about 2 t salt per pound of meat)
1 C barbecue sauce (or enough to cover the meat)
1 can beer (any cheap brand will be fine)
1 package dry onion soup (Lipton's, of course)
1 1/2 C carrot slices (not too thin)
1 1/2 C potato slices (not too thin)
Makes 6 to 10 servings

1) Heat the oven to 300°F. Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer, and sear the meat on all sides until dark brown. Put the meat in 9 x 13-inch roasting pan.

2) In a large bowl, mix the garlic, salt, pepper, and the barbecue sauce. Add the beer, stir, and pour the mixture over the meat. Tuck the carrot and potato slices around the meat and pour the Lipton’s over everything.

3) Cover with foil and cook in the oven for about 3 hours, or until tender. Cool the brisket and then refrigerate after slicing the meat. Cook the brisket at least one day before you intend to serve it; two or three days is even better. Uncover the meat at least once to skim off all the surface fat. Make sure the meat is covered with liquid (more beer and/or barbecue sauce thinned with water can be used) and reheat in a microwave or in a slow oven before serving. Serve the liquid separately as a sauce.

Peter: When and where were you born? Where did you grow up?

Gloria: I was born in New York, and spent my first year in my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx (the section later immortalized in Fort Apache, The Bronx), and then moved to 20th Street and First Avenue, in Manhattan. I was born in 1947 — one of the boomers born after my father returned from World War II. I lived there until I graduated from college.

Peter: What was your favorite food growing up?

Gloria: Anything Chinese. We often ate in restaurants in Chinatown where the menu was written in Chinese characters on the mirrors that lined the walls.

Peter: What’s your earliest childhood memory involving food?

Gloria: My earliest memories about food center on the fact that my mother was not a good cook and she disliked cooking. We ate in restaurants far more often than did most families in those years. I felt guilty rejoicing in the fact that my mother was an awful cook.

Peter: What’s the story behind this dish?

Gloria: Brisket is a staple of Jewish cuisine. Unfortunately, it can often be dry and rather flavorless. I found a version of this recipe in a cookbook published by a preschool as a fundraiser, and played with it until I was happy with the results. Everyone loves this version of brisket. I always make it for Passover and our friends even request it for Thanksgiving (yes, we have turkey, too). Brisket is a traditional dish, but this never would have been served for an Orthodox Passover seder. Beer is not kosher for Passover because it’s made from a grain.

Peter: Can you describe a typical family meal when you were growing up?

Gloria: A typical meal when I was growing up would have started with a fruit cup or grapefruit slices, very overcooked meat (my dad wouldn’t eat anything that was the slightest bit pink or bloody), canned vegetables (yuck!), and a starch. Dessert was usually Jell-O. My mother kept a kosher home so she had to follow the rules of kashrut.

Peter: What was your favorite thing that was cooked in your house?

Gloria: My favorite dish at home was matzo brei (literally: fried matzo). Sheets of matzo are soaked in water until soft, mixed with beaten raw eggs, and fried in butter. This dish is a traditional treat for Passover, but we ate it year-round. It was one of my mom’s only successes!

Peter: Who did the cooking?

Gloria: I do all the cooking. My husband is excellent at using the microwave, but he doesn’t cook from scratch unless I’m not able to cook. He kept us well fed after I had surgery, but he was happy to give it up once I recovered.

Peter: How did you learn to cook or bake?

Gloria: I learned to cook by reading cookbooks. I shared an apartment with a roommate in graduate school, and our deal was that she would clean if I cooked. My mom never taught me to cook (thank goodness!). She never liked cooking and she told me that I’d have to do it when I grew up so she wouldn’t make me do it before then.

Peter: Do you like cooking? What do you like about it?

Gloria: I do, given enough time. Now that I am newly retired, I’ve gone back to trying out new recipes and revisiting old favorites. I love to go grocery shopping (everyone should have Publix near their house), and I get great ideas from seeing new products and coming up with ways to use the foods that are on sale that week.

Peter: What do you have in common with your mom?

Gloria: My mom and I share a love of eating out! I love to try new restaurants and unusual items. I love living in Tampa, but we are not strong on good, independent restaurants. We do have every chain that has ever been invented and sometimes a burger at Ruby Tuesday is just fine.

Peter: What do we have in common?

Gloria: You and I share a love of good restaurants; you’re a more adventurous eater. Spicy is my least favorite word on a menu. We love to visit you and your wife, Robin, for many reasons, but the list of good restaurants in Louisville is high on our list.

Peter Berkowitz is a writer and editor who lives in Louisville, KY. Gloria Berkowitz is a retired reading specialist who lives in Tampa, Florida.

c. 2015 Lucky Peach

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