I come from a long line of now-endangered 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.
Duck? and Cover
My husband of 32 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 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 a steak. Steak. Steak. Steak.”
Happily, my mother and I cured Jon of his red meat disdain. One helping of her brisket and he was hooked.
Married Red Meat Carnivores
We married and were happy carnivores. We had children and fed them a steady diet of steak, burgers, salami, beef tacos, and, of course, brisket. Brisket for big family dinners. Brisket for holidays. Brisket anytime. And best of all, 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.
Betrayal No. 1
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 during 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 for holidays, if not brisket? What to serve the hordes of hungry teens that come over for dinner, if not chili con carne or beef tacos?
Betrayal No. 2
Two years later, Kid No. 2 came home from the first semester at college. I had planned extensive menus focused on 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,” The Kid 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 child 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,” The Kid casually said.
Yes, my world had definitely changed. But I adapted. I now soak, simmer, and sauté beans with the best of them!
Still, the challenges continue.
Be Kind to Pigs
Through the years, the 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 respect the decision not to eat meat for ethical and health reasons, the challenges of living in a vegetarian world extend beyond my own kitchen. Recently the husband of my very vegetarian girlfriend pulled up in front of me at a McDonald’s drive-up window. I couldn’t see what he ordered. Was it a soda? Or was it something else? Something forbidden? Something like a burger or chicken McNuggets? Had he strayed and betrayed his marital and dietary vows? I don’t know. Was I obligated to tell my girlfriend I saw him at the fast food restaurant? I opted not to, but now I can no longer look her husband in the eye.
The List of Excluded Food Grows … and Grows
Luckily, Kid No. 2 has come back from the dark side, at least partially. The Kid has dropped the vegan extreme as being too complicated and is now “only” a vegetarian.
But don’t think that my cooking life is easier. Handsome Hubby is now 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 and have been forced to create a chart to track who eats what.
Spouse Gluten-free No pork
Kid No. 1 No meat Yes fish*
Kid. No. 2 No meat No fish Yes, yes, yes junk food
Me Red meat, white meat No fish**
* Except shellfish ** Except shellfish and salmon
Now when I cook, the best I can do is satisfy two of the three. Someone is always left foraging through the refrigerator and pantry for dinner.
Yearning for Days Gone By
Now sadly, the only time I cook brisket is when company comes over. Everybody loves it, but it’s not the same.
And so, I yearn for the days of the big family brisket dinners. 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.