As a child, the closest I ever came to Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup was through a slide of Andy Warhol’s iconic print in an art history class; except for once a year, Hanukkah, which began this week. It’s the key to my great-grandmother’s brisket recipe, and last weekend I found myself elbow deep in it as I made the dish for the first time by myself.
I love to cook and take on new recipes regularly, but brisket was one I had never attempted because I had never needed to. Away from home for the holiday, I was determined to recreate childhood memories, cream of mushroom soup and all.
After surveying the Vineyard farmers for a slab of brisket I came up empty-handed, though. The cut, normally from the chest of the cow, is a cheap and accessible cut found in most grocery stores but considered an odd cut that’s not usually ordered when animals are sent to the slaughterhouse.
I turned to Shiretown Meats in Edgartown. When I walked in to pick up the brisket I had reserved, owner Dave Vaughan appeared from the backroom with the meat.
I looked at the brisket on the counter with wide eyes. It was big enough to feed an army, let alone a quaint dinner party for 10 guests.
“Here ya go,” Dave said, looking at me with an inquisitive eye; did I really know what to do with a seven pound piece of beef?
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to cook the hell out of it.”
“That’s exactly what you have to do.”
Growing up in a small New York city apartment I am accustomed to cramped kitchens that double as storage space, display shelves and even dining rooms. But I always had a full stove and oven. In my tiny apartment here in Edgartown, however, I have a demi-stove and oven that sets the fire detectors off like an enraged howler monkey every time I open it. I had to make other treats too for the holiday dinner party I was hosting, and my poor excuse of an appliance wasn’t going to cut it. The brisket would have to be made in my family’s home in Oak Bluffs.
Let the great schlep begin.
I began the day crying. The onions from Whippoorwill Farm were particularly strong, but I powered through with tears streaming down my face. Carrots, shallots, turnips, garlic and the onions went into my prep bowl and then into the back of my car.
My car reeking of onions and garlic, I headed to my family’s home, empty now in the off-season
In the kitchen, I laid out two pieces of foil to create a pocket for the meat to sit in. The cut was so large it had been wrapped with cooking twine. Fresh from the cooler, my fingers were ice cubes after freeing it.
Then it was time for the mushroom soup. I opened the can gingerly and emptied one can onto the brisket.
The gelatinous soup struggled to come out and I winced at the thought of opening another can. I quickly dumped in the second can, followed by the prepped vegetables, then wrapped it up in foil and placed it in the oven.
The brisket needed to cook for at least five hours, errands still had to be run, the table set, and the holly from my backyard arranged just so. I travelled back and forth between my apartment in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs three times and each time I called my mom for guidance. I had watched family members cook this every year, my mom in particular slaving over a hot stove for hours for our annual Hanukkah party. Watched, but never helped. I needed reassurance. It wasn’t cooking, it was still pink, it didn’t smell right quite yet.
“Brisket help line,” Mom answered the first time.
“Hello, Mrs. Brisket,” the second.
“Yes, Brisket?” the third.
Patience, she kept telling me, it doesn’t reach its full potential until the last hour. The more you futz with it the worse, she said, just let it be.
By 6 p.m. I felt like a brisket.
When I entered the house the last time the kitchen was so warm and comforting it felt as though my family was right there with me. My grandmother serving it on her white and blue china. My mom licking her fingers. My dad using the electric knife I so wished I had. The kitchen smelled right – the sweetness of the carrots, the stewing of the beef, the nuttiness of the cream of mushroom soup. I knew it was done.
I opened the aluminum foil pocket and breathed in the sweet steam. I pulled off a piece of the brisket with a fork. The meat came off in long strings, just as it was supposed to.