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.