Mmmmmm, brisket!

There’s an old Jewish joke about cooking traditions—but there’s nothing Jewish about it. I’ve heard the same joke told by Lutherans.

A mother is showing her daughter how to cook a roast. “The first thing you do is whack off the end, like this, and put it aside,” the mother says. The daughter thinks this is odd.

“Why do you cut off the end?” she asks.

“That’s the way my mother always did it, and that’s the way she taught me.”

The girl goes to her grandma and asks her why she cuts the end off the roast before cooking it. “That’s the way my mother always did it, and that’s the way she taught me,” says the grandma.

The daughter is lucky enough to have her great-grandma still living, so she goes to her in an effort to solve the mystery. “Why do you cut off the end of the roast before you cook it?” asks the daughter.

“Because it was too big to fit in my pan,” says the great-grandma.

Ah, tradition! I think of that joke whenever I make brisket, a staple of the holiday table in Jewish families from a European background. Brisket is popular for holidays because it’s not only delicious, but it’s easy to make. Unlike a rib roast or other cut that’s best served medium-rare, it can cook for a long time. As long as you use enough liquid and keep it covered while it’s roasting, you won’t need to worry that the meat will get dried out or overcooked while you’re waiting for your guests to come home from synagogue services. And it’s even better made ahead and reheated. This week, cooks all over the world are preparing festive meals for Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish New Year celebration that starts at sundown on September 4. I thought this would be a good time to share this terrific brisket recipe from my step-aunt, Irma Zigas, who died a few months ago at the age of 83.

Cooking with Grandma

Here is a delightful video in which Irma shows her grandson Caleb how to make her famous “California” brisket.

I think it’s a very worthy memorial to her. I’ve watched it numerous times and I smile every time. It’s part of a series of multi-ethnic “cooking with grandma” videos on the website. The video was made for Passover, but brisket is an equal-opportunity entrée! Here’s a little bit more about Irma. She married my Uncle Art a few years after my mother’s younger sister died at 39 of breast cancer, bringing two daughters into the family with my three cousins. Art and Irma were married for 46 years. They were both New Yorkers, and at first they lived in East Meadow, on Long Island. I would see them when I visited my grandmother in Brooklyn, or at family events with my New Jersey cousins. In 1978, Art and Irma moved to San Francisco and I saw them only a few times after that at major family celebrations.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO SCREEN, below, to watch the video. If a video screen does not appear in your version of this column, try clicking on the main headline, “Mmmmmm, brisket!” to reload this column.


A feisty, flaming liberal

What I remember most about Irma was her feistiness. She never hesitated to let people know what she thought—you can get some sense of that in the video. And she was an ardent liberal, active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. She was a draft counselor and a leader in the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty for draft resisters and  in Women Strike for Peace. Irma was also artistic, and she had canny business sense as well. As a young woman she performed with the Yiddish Dance Theater. After moving to San Francisco, she worked as director of retail operations for the San Francisco Opera. Later she started Banana Republic’s travel book program and the Book Passage bookstore. Before retiring in 2003, she was director of retail and wholesale for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she grew the museum shop into one of the best in the country. She left wonderful, accomplished children and step-children. I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her.

Bread and Wine; The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: Serving up good books … and good recipes!

two interesting books about food have caught my eye and I’m happy to recommend them to you. Both include recipes, but they’re not cookbooks.

The first is Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist whose website tells more about her life. Bread & Wine is similar in many ways to Feed The Spirit: It’s a collection of essays about family, faith, values–and food!

The second book is The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone. It’s a fascinating tale of the author’s search for her  culinary roots.

I will call these authors by their first names, because after reading their books, I feel I know so much about them and their lives.

Life’s “beautiful and broken moments”

In Bread & Wine, Shauna writes about “the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life–friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God.”

Each essay is followed by a recipe. Shauna says she likes nothing better than gathering family and friends around her table and feeding them. She’s a devout Christian, and the title refers to the bread and wine used sacramentally in the church as well as the food and spirits that sustain us on a daily basis. Shauna says the moments she feels God’s presence most profoundly take place around a table.

Although she has developed into an excellent cook, she stresses that she didn’t start out that way. She frequently reminds us that the complexity and sophistication of the food have little to do with the quality of the experience of sharing food. “Some of my most sacred meals have been eaten out of travel mugs on camping trips or on benches on the street in Europe,” she says.

Shauna advises anyone unused to cooking for guests to “start where you are.” If entertaining is not something you’re used to, invite people over and serve pizza with a salad and bottled dressing, on paper plates if necessary. As you get comfortable with the idea of being a host or hostess, you can become a little more adventurous and start experimenting.

A search for culinary roots

Award-winning food writer Laura Schenone has a mixed ethnic heritage that includes Croatian, Irish, German and Italian great-grandmothers.

In her early 40s, living in suburban New Jersey with a husband and two young sons, she found herself yearning to be able to cook something that could span generations and tell a story. She wanted, she says, “a recipe I could trace from my family, back into history, further and further back, into an ancient past. Even more importantly – a recipe that could take me to a landscape more beautiful than postindustrial New Jersey….I wanted nothing more and nothing less than an authentic old family recipe.”

She turned to her father’s Italian family to find it. Her Italian great-grandmother, Adalgiza, had come to America – to Hoboken, New Jersey – from Genoa, where ravioli is an essential component of the cuisine. Adalgiza’s ravioli, Laura says, were “the real deal.”

Laura sets out not only to find the “original” recipe but to learn how to make ravioli the old way, rolling and flipping the dough until it is so thin it’s translucent and crimping the filled squares with an ancient ravioli press. It took a lot of practice, often testing the patience of her husband and sons. Armed with Adalgiza’s ravioli recipe – passed down to an aunt, who wrote it out, and then to a cousin – Laura sets off to visit Genoa, on Italy’s Ligurian coast. She also visits Recco, the small mountain town where her great-grandfather was born.

By Ewan Munro from London, UK (La Barca, Waterloo, London Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsShe discovers that Ligurian cuisine is quite different from the southern Italian foods most of us are familiar with. She learns that poverty, more than anything else, drove millions of Italians from their homeland to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mountain folk were so poor that they could rarely afford wheat for pasta and olive oil, now considered staples of Italian cuisine. They were nourished by the chestnut trees that grew around them, using the wood for furniture and the dried nuts to make flour. They flavored their dishes with mushrooms and herbs found in the chestnut forests.

A fancy but not-too-difficult recipe

Laura’s recipes are really complex and look daunting even for an experienced cook like me. But she includes detailed instructions and lots of photos. Shauna’s recipes are less intimidating. Here is one that she adapted from Sally Sampson’s book The $50 Dinner Party. Shauna says it may look difficult because of the long list of ingredients, but it’s mostly just chopping and throwing things into the pot. I recommend mixing up the spices and getting everything chopped before you start cooking.

The recipe says it serves six. Shauna says she often doubles the recipe to serve 10 to 12 and serves it with a simple green salad and pita or naan. And I halved it for my husband and me. Half the recipe made enough for two generous dinners and two lunches. It tastes great left over!

If you think you don’t like Indian food, this might change your mind. It’s spicy-flavorful, not spicy-hot. If you don’t like hot, leave out the cayenne pepper. If you like heat, add a little more.


Welcome to Feed the Spirit! Got a story, a recipe, a question?

ReadTheSpirit is proud to introduce our newest department: FeedTheSpirit, a section we are launching to share stories, recipes and questions from readers about foods that are linked to faith and culture. Your host for this new department is veteran food writer Bobbie Lewis. She will keep stirring the pot in this new department, week by week, so you’ll always find a fascinating new story or recipe or Q&A each week.
Here is Bobbie’s first column …

In the immortal words of James Stockdale (who you’ve probably already forgotten was Ross Perot’s running mate in his third-party campaign for president in 1996), “Who am I and what am I doing here?”

There are a lot of words that could describe me: retiree, public relations professional, wife, mother (of 3), grandmother (of 1), Conservative Jew, liberal, feminist. If I had to sum up my professional career in one word it would be “writer.”

I started as a general assignment reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. After moving to Michigan more than 36 years ago, I had a long career in communications for nonprofit organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Sinai Hospital, Hospice of Michigan and Lutheran Social Services.

I’m also someone who loves good food. I love to cook and as my scale shows—I also love to eat.

After I retired from full-time work last summer, I determined to get my recipes in order. They were scattered among a file box, an accordion-file folder, and more than one manila folder, not to mention several dozen cookbooks. In the course of transcribing all the clippings and handwritten cards I actually want to keep into a gigantic Word document (I reckon I’m about one-third of the way there), I decided to share my fave recipes via a blog, Bobbie’s Best Recipes.

This caught the attention of David Crumm, editor of ReadTheSpirit. I knew David from his days as religion writer at the Detroit Free Press, when I would pitch him religion-related stories about my employers. I’ve subscribed to ReadTheSpirit since its inception.

I have long been interested in interfaith relations. This may stem from seven years as the only Jewish girl in an almost completely Protestant elementary school class. I am active with WISDOM, which stands for Women’s Interfaith Dialogue for Solutions and Dialogue in Metro Detroit and is a group dedicated to promoting cross-cultural friendships. (WISDOM literally wrote the book on that, called Friendship & Faith.) Currently, I also serve on the planning committee for the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference to be held in Detroit in August 2014.

So when David invited me to moderate a blog about food and its relation to faith, family and culture, I leaped at the opportunity.

I hope many of you will help me in this effort by sharing, commenting or asking a question.

Do you have a great story about food that’s also about faith, family, friendship or culture? Please share it with me—I’m looking for guest bloggers who can take over this space from time to time.

Don’t hesitate to share your comments about any of the stories or recipes that appear here, And feel free to ask a question—about anything that might be unclear in a post or about something you’d like to see here. Perhaps you’re looking for a recipe connected to a religious holiday or an ethnic community and you haven’t been able to find it. We’ll put out the request, and maybe another reader will be able to help.

I hope you’ll think of FeedTheSpirit as an online community of people interested in food and in faith—and in how the twain often meet.