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 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 where the New York Yankees ate. In college, my father and I were practically on a first-name basis with the wait staff elsewhere.
My husband of 35 years and I barely made it past the first date. His idea of dinner was homemade pasta with vegetables, 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 weeks of red-meat deprivation, Jon took me to a pricy, romantic restaurant. Candles flickered on the table.
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, meanwhile, kept thinking, “Steak. Steak. Steak.”
Happily, my mother and I cured Jon of his red-meat disdain. One helping of her brisket, and he was hooked.
We married and raised two cute little carnivores on a steady diet of steak, burgers, salami, beef tacos and, of course, beef brisket. Brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Brisket for Passover. Brisket for company. Brisket anytime. And best of all, brisket leftovers.
Brisket was the dish that held my family together. It was over brisket that we celebrated and mourned. Laughed and fought. Talked about the weather and politics. Told stories about the past.
“Do you remember when Grandma decked the cleaning guy because he lost her hand-made European tablecloth?”
The years passed. My daughter went off to college, returning at winter break a changed person. She was now leading a better life than the one her apparently murderous parents had provided for the first 18 years of her existence. She was, in short, a vegetarian.
Now, when your child makes a healthy ethical lifestyle choice, you should applaud. You should show respect. 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 for dinner, if not chili con carne or beef tacos?
Two years later, my son returned from his first semester at college. I had planned extensive menus focused on his childhood favorites — all beef-centric. I joyfully shopped, chopped, stirred and roasted.
“Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you. I’m a vegetarian now,” my son said, munching on some Muenster.
“That’s nice, dear. Do you want kasha or potatoes with the brisket?” I asked, unable to comprehend that this vegetarian mania had seized my second born.
Four months later, this same wayward child returned for spring break. Resilient mother that I was, I had prepared a massive vegetarian lasagna, oozing in mozzarella goodness.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m vegan,” he said.
This culinary crisis reminded me of a scene that had played out multiple times through the years at my parents’ home. Every time my vegetarian British sister-in-law came to dinner, my father would pass the platter piled high with steaks.
“No thanks, Dad,” Deanna would say politely.
“Really, Deanna, you don’t want any?” my father would ask in a puzzled voice.
Now 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 tied to the deprivations and rationing of WW II.
Well, the world has changed. Today many people are vegetarians. I get it. I respect it. I even cook it. Still, the vegetarian world challenges me.
Once the husband of a very vegetarian girlfriend of mine pulled in front of me at the fast-food drive-up window. Why was he at a hamburger joint? Was I supposed to tell my friend her man had gone astray? I mean, maybe his presence was innocent, not a betrayal of marital-dietary vows. Maybe he didn’t order a burger. Maybe he just purchased a Diet Coke. I painfully opted not to tell my friend. But now I can no longer look her husband in the eye.
On the bright side, my son has returned from the vegan side. It was too complicated. Too expensive. He’s now just a vegetarian.
Still, my cooking life isn’t easy. My husband went through a gluten-free phase. That was fun. His personal “no eat” list included (or should I say, excluded) the three sacred Ps — pancakes, pasta and pastry.
To track the constantly evolving familial culinary constraints, I created a chart.
Yes, yes, yes junk food
Red meat and white meat
Menus get more complicated at the holidays. One niece doesn’t like cheese on salad. One friend is allergic to onions. Once I forgot this. It was not pleasant.
As for me, I simply yearn for the days of the big family brisket dinners and the old familiar stories.
“Do you remember when Mom and Dad . . . ?”
I remember and miss those days, those long-gone family members, and the traditions also long-gone. Yes, today we are forging new traditions, but still, an old-fashioned brisket dinner would be lovely . . . and delicious.