I come from a long line of red-meat carnivores. My grandmother made a mean Cornish game hen, but it was her Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage (stuffed with ground beef) I most fondly remember.
My mother’s signature recipes were chili con carne, roast beef, steak smothered in buttery onions and mushrooms, beef and peppers, and brisket. Oh, yes, the brisket.
Our restaurants of choice mirrored our at-home beef preferences. I have vivid memories of childhood gluttony at the Cortland steakhouse where the New York Yankees ate. In college, my father and I were practically on a first-name basis with the wait staff at Steak ’n Brew.
My husband of 31 years and I barely made it past the first date. His idea of dinner was homemade pasta with vegetables or roast chicken or — horrors — duck. My birthday arrived early in our relationship and he bought me three vegetarian cookbooks, including Molly Katzen’s “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.” Clearly this was a man who could not see the cows through the forest.
After many weeks of me suffering red-meat deprivation, Jon took me to a pricy, romantic restaurant. I wore an off-the-shoulder pink top. Candles flickered on the table. It was pretty clear we were but three courses away from the bedroom.
When I opened the menu and saw four types of steak, I gasped with joy. As we waited, Jon kept murmuring the appropriate “You look so beautiful” kind of sweep-her-off-her-feet compliments. I kept thinking, “Yes, I’m going to get steak. Steak. Steak. Steak.”
Happily, my mother and I cured Jon of his red-meat disdain. One helping of her beef brisket and he was hooked.
We married and were happy carnivores. We had children and fed them a steady diet of steak, burgers, salami, beef tacos and, of course, beef brisket. Beef brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Beef brisket for Passover. Beef brisket for company. Beef brisket anytime. And best of all, beef brisket leftovers.
Brisket was the food that held my family together. It was over brisket that we celebrated and mourned, laughed and fought, talked about the weather and politics.
We told stories about the past. “Do you remember when Grandma decked the cleaning guy because he lost her European tablecloth?” “How about the time Uncle Henry took Mom fishing and made her pee over the side of the boat?”
We talked about the kids’ progress in school, and my Shakespeare-loving big brother issued his usual money offer to the child who could recite Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
The years passed. My daughter went off to college. She returned from winter break a changed person. She was leading a more healthful life than the one her apparently murderous, carnivorous parents had provided for the first 18 years of her existence. She was, in short, a vegetarian.
Now I know when your child makes a healthy, ethical lifestyle choice, you should applaud. You should respect it. You should not take it personally. You should not feel that the traditions of your family, your culture and your religion have been abandoned.
I, of course, opted for the “should not” list of reactions. What to serve at Passover, if not brisket? What to serve the hordes of hungry teens that come over for dinner, if not chili con carne or beef tacos?
Two years later, my son came home from his first semester at college. I had planned extensive menus focused on his childhood favorites: first night, brisket; second night, tacos; third night, brisket leftovers; fourth night, dinner out at our favorite burger joint. I joyfully shopped, chopped and cooked.
“Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you. I’m a vegetarian now,” my son said, reaching gingerly around the brisket for the packaged, pre-sliced Muenster cheese.
“That’s nice, dear. Do you want kasha or potatoes with the brisket?” I asked, unable to comprehend that this vegetarian madness had claimed my second child.
Four months later, this same wayward son came home for spring break. Resilient mother that I am, I had prepared — from scratch — a massive vegetarian lasagna, oozing in mozzarella cheesy goodness. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I’m vegan now,” Jacob said when he opened the refrigerator.
This ongoing culinary crisis reminded me of a scene that had played out multiple times through the years at my parents’ home. Each and every time my vegetarian British sister-in-law came over for dinner, my father would pass the platter filled with steaks. “No thanks, Dad,” Deanna would say politely and quickly pass the dish to the next person.
“Really, Deanna, you don’t want any meat?” my father would persist.
“Deanna, really? You never eat meat? Never?” my father would then ask in a truly puzzled voice.
My father was a smart man. Yet he could not fathom the idea that someone voluntarily would exist without eating meat. He and my mother thought Deanna’s dietary decision was somehow a British thing, perhaps tied to the deprivations and rationing of World War II.
Well, the world has changed. Today many people don’t eat meat and live healthy lives as vegetarians. I get it. I respect it. I even cook it.
Yet the culinary challenges and changes continue. Through the years, our children have lectured us repeatedly and passionately about animals being sentient and feeling pain. They have been persuasive. My bacon-loving husband no longer eats pork out of respect for our kids (and the pigs, I suppose). He now has tofu sausage with breakfast, which just seems wrong, not to mention devoid of taste.
And while I have grown to respect the decision not to eat meat for ethical and health reasons, the challenges I face are not just kitchen-related. Sometimes there are grave moral dilemmas. Just the other day, I saw the spouse of a very vegetarian girlfriend of mine pull up in front of me at the drive-up window at Wendy’s. Do I tell her that her husband has gone astray? I mean, maybe his presence there was innocent, not a betrayal of marital and dietary vows. Maybe he only ordered an iced tea or a soda. I opted not to tell my girlfriend, but I can no longer look her husband in the eye.
Lucky for me, my son has come back from the dark side. At least partially. He is now “only” a vegetarian. The vegan thing was too complicated, too expensive.
But don’t think that my cooking life is easier. My husband has now gone gluten-free. His personal “no eat” list has expanded beyond pork to include (or should I say, exclude) the three sacred Ps of our household — pancakes, pasta and pastry.
I can hardly keep all these cooking constraints straight. I have been forced to create a chart tracking who is eating what.
- No pork
- No meat
- Yes fish*
- No meat
- No fish
- Yes, yes, yes junk food
- Red meat, white meat, even pink (pork) meat**
- No fish***
* Except shellfish
** Don’t tell my rabbi
*** Except shellfish (don’t tell my rabbi) and salmon
Now when I cook, the best I can do is satisfy two of the three. If I make pasta, the children are covered, but my husband is left foraging through the refrigerator. If I make salmon, my spouse and my daughter are fed, but my son is left out. It is exhausting.
It gets even more complicated when we have company. One of my nieces doesn’t like cheese on her salad. One close friend, a vegetarian, is allergic to onions. Once I forgot this. It was not a pleasant scene.
Really, the only person I like cooking for anymore is my friend Janice. She is a self-described vegetarian “except when Karen makes brisket.” Now this is a woman after my own heart. No chart required. Janice is always welcome at my house.
But still I yearn for the time of the big, family brisket meals. I yearn for the stories we told over and over again. “Do you remember the time …?”
I do remember and miss those days, those family members, and the traditions that are gone. Yes, we are forging new traditions, but still an old-fashioned, family brisket dinner would be lovely. And delicious.