If you ever doubted the passion with which diners regard brisket, look no further than the online discussion boards of sites like Chow, Eater and Serious Eats - or any Jewish Community Center gathering. That's where you'll find devotees discussing, kibitzing and arguing about Lipton onion soup, the thickness of the slice and the perfection of their mothers' recipes.
"Every culture has a version," says Stephanie Pierson, author of what may be the world's first brisket-centric cookbook, and every family says theirs is the best. It's a pride thing. It's also a love thing, which is why Pierson's book, "The Brisket Book" (Andrews McMeel, 208 pages, $29.99), carries the subtitle "A Love Story With Recipes."
There's probably no other cut of meat that evokes such feelings of home, happiness and cultural continuity.
"We have lost our mother tongues," she says, "changed our last names and moved all over the world, (but) we have somehow managed not to lose our recipes for brisket."
Instead, those scraps of paper - tattered index cards filled with spidery jottings about oven temperatures and flavorful additions - are passed from bubbe to granddaughter, shared with college roommates and then emailed to boyfriends, cousins and friends-of-friends who are hosting a Hanukkah feast for the first time. It's a culinary sharing that transcends borders, cultures and divides.
That was the message Pierson heard over and over again as she spent a year "brisketeering" with rabbis, butchers, bubbes and chefs, including Chris Kimball of Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen fame and Nach Waxman, the owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters.
"For a tough cut of meat that's not a big superstar, it has this amazing provenance of being part of communities and families all over the world," Pierson says.
Brisket may lack the sexiness of a sirloin, Pierson says, or the va-va-voom of a filet, but no matter what you add to that inexpensive, tough cut of meat - and that's a list that ranges from miso to Dr Pepper - brisket is transformed by one thing.
It's love, says Jeff Banker, executive chef at San Francisco's Baker & Banker, "For it to be good, you have to put a lot of love into it."
Banker's mother rubbed her brisket with spices and let it marinate overnight, before giving it a quick searing to lock in the juices. Then she'd top it with ketchup, onion and that quintessential, mid-20th century ingredient - Lipton onion soup - and cook it for hours. Banker will tweak those ingredients slightly when his award-winning restaurant hosts a week of four-course Hanukkah dinners, but the menu is all Mom, from the matzo ball soup to the brisket and latkes.
The Lipton onion soup-sprinkled variation is a classic of our times, Pierson says. It's a riff of sorts on the classic Ashkenazic preparation, which is rich with savory onions. Pierson's former best friend's ex-mother-in-law's recipe combines the onion soup mix with ketchup, chili sauce and Malbec to produce a sweet, tomatoey sauce. Others add beer to the mix. And still others toss in pomegranate juice, gingerbread and/or coffee.
Pierson is an expert on the topic now, but despite having a Jewish father and growing up in a "Jewish-WASPy household," the self-described "brisket orphan" didn't have her first taste of the glorious entree until she was in her 20s.
"It was love at first bite," she says.
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