Officer David Hartman examined the evidence. Was it tender enough? What was the fat-to-meat ratio? How much did the side of spiced, pickled cabbage and hearty cornbread fit into the equation?
And if I tried it at home, was this the way to go?
Hartman (pictured) was seated across from me in the front room of Ordinary, helping me piece together a mystery. A brisket mystery.
The mystery began three generations ago, in a tiny apartment in University City, Missouri. It led to the restaurant on College Street.
In between came the story of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who made his living hauling scrap metal over the Illinois border for over 50 years, and my grandmother, whose beef brisket, rubbed lovingly with Lipton’s onion soup powder, gained a reputation of its own during birthdays, holidays, and big Jewish family dinners.
I am not a fan of meat. Not at the beginning of this summer, and not now either. But this quest to find out more about brisket, which started as a hands-on family history project, felt natural. I have always loved cooking. And when my grandfather died last year, the response in my big Jewish family was to cook and eat and eat and cook and then eat some more.
My grandparents loved each other unlike I have ever seen people love each other. Introduced at Saint Louis’ Congregation B’nai Amoona in 1946, they married in a number of months after one hasty declaration that she was his b’sheret, that it was fate. Food, to my grandmother, was the ultimate declaration of love: She made it with great panache; he consumed it with the same celebration and ritual. From the first big meal she made — a brisket put together a week after their wedding — to the last one he ate — a fried pastrami sandwich — this was how she said I will do anything for you, my home and my heart, and how he said it back.
More than the graveside prayers, the sticky Saint Louis August and stuffy, perfumed embraces with second, third, and fourth cousins, I remember platters of deli meats and cheeses, carefully compartmentalized and separated with sprigs of parsley and kale; trays of rugelach and mohn kichlach that my grandmother ate in handfuls, and a lot of bad kosher wine.
Absent from it all, though, was my grandmother’s brisket. My grandparents were adolescents in Saint Louis when brisket, like tongue, was still a cheap cut of meat. Brisket wasn’t sexy like it is now, but it was affordable, and it was up to my grandmother to make it hearty and comforting and delicate all at once. That legacy has lasted into her 90s: Every time all of the Gellmans are in an enclosed space, one magically appears.
Except when you put a body in a box and a box in the ground. Then, everybody lifts a glass of that bad wine and spins stories around a dish to make up for its palpable absence.
It was this, paired with the fresh slap of loss, that reminded me of the family members I was leaving behind when I boarded a plane and headed back to the East Coast in the heavy, wet heat of a Missouri summer. Almost a year passed. Then, given the approaching anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I decided to call a mess of family members, bring them together over the phone, and make a brisket in his memory.
It wasn’t a simple matter. Had I thought procuring yahrzeit (memorial) candles was too difficult, this would be impossible.
Impossible, but I had to do it.
It started as a fleeting idea. Then wouldn’t leave me alone.
I dreamt in brisket. I smelled it even when it wasn’t there. I started talking to friends and colleagues about it.
When it seemed like the time was right — which was of course in the middle of a rolling July heat wave, when my kitchen doubled as a sauna — I enlisted some help and got started.
Jason Sobocinski, Ordinary’s owner, gave me a crash course in braising liquids and anatomy of a cow’s chest. While my grandmother had suggested the wrap-and-soup-mix approach — wrapping is a more controversial issue than I ever imagined — I was in love with the idea of not turning on the stove for several hours.
Enter the idea of crock-pot brisket, swimming in onions, garlic, rosemary and dark Irish beer for nine or ten hours. Jason gave me the green light. Hartman, an epicure who doubles as the police department’s official spokesman, reminded me that a cut without enough fat wouldn’t be very good. Mike, the friendly butcher at Ferraro’s, gave me some tips on how not to screw it up.
Whether my beefy experiment was going to be brisket haven or brisketgate 2015, it was going to happen. I’d gone too far for it not to.
If brisket was supposed to be an extended family affair ... it was. My mother called in with recipes from the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook and gave me tips on how to brown a glistening, still-slightly-bloody hunk of meat. My dad called from Detroit with recollections of eating brisket during his childhood, served up with kasha and shells and drenched in a beef-sweat gravy. My boyfriend doubled as my sous-chef, mincing a head of garlic into oblivion while I said a quick prayer and threw the meat into a steaming frying pan for the first step.
My colleagues at the New Haven Independent (pictured above) offered to taste test.
That, I think, is what it’s all about. Finding your people. Telling them that they’re loved. And having a meal over which to get just a little closer, one bite at a time.
The story unravels in an episode of WNHH radio ‘s “Kitchen Sync.” To listen to the episode, click on the audio below. You can also find it in iTunes or any podcast app under “WNHH Community Radio.”