Here’s another of my essays written as part of a creative project with my friend Brenda. The word to work with here was “brisket.”
If I can’t cook a decent brisket, am I still Jewish? Or, I should say, am I still a Jewish woman? That’s not to say a non-Jew can’t or doesn’t cook brisket, and it’s not to say that a man, of any persuasion, can’t or doesn’t cook brisket. It’s just that I’m sure I am not keeping up with Jewish tradition.
I have cooked many briskets (okay, several…), and I believe they were all passable. But so many of my friends and past generations of Jewish women (mainly my mother) presented briskets that were tender and tasty. They cooked them year after year with the same consistency and without having to more than glance at a recipe, if that.
Since I married my non-Jewish husband, we have together cooked a few briskets. I rely on him because he’s our resident chef. But even with his culinary skills, we needed to ponder which way to cut the meat when it was done. Against the grain? With the grain? And which way is the grain going? This happened every time.
Over the years, I absolved myself by successfully making other traditional Jewish dishes. My favorite are muffin-size potato kugels, stemming from recollection of my paternal grandmother making them every Passover. I didn’t’ have her recipe. She didn’t have her recipe. She cooked from memory—from home in Russia and her early days in Chicago as a housewife. But when I came across a recipe for potato kugel muffins in a Jewish cookbook, I knew I had to make them.
With no grain to cut with or against, these muffins are hard to screw up, but they take some intensive labor. Not wanting to schlep out the food processor, I grate the potatoes by hand, trying hard not to get bits of fingertip or knuckle in the mix. (I’m sorry if you lost your appetite at this point. Forget I said that.) The grated potatoes get mixed with eggs, matzoh meal, and a few other ingredients and then baked in greased muffin tins. The only hazard is getting them out of the tins without leaving half the mixture in the pan. It seems that no amount of greasing prevents some of that.
They’re delicious, they get oohs and aahs from your guests, and best of all, they go great with a nice brisket. Just don’t ask me to cook it.