Having spent most of my adult life telling people my mother doesn’t cook, I was startled to hear myself using “my mother’s brisket” in the context of a story on winter comforts. I thought for a moment: my mother’s brisket. Was that right? It was. My mother did make brisket.
As is often the case with childhood memories of the non-startling variety, it’s now impossible to tell how often she made brisket. But I do recall it wasn’t a big ordeal, but a quiet side to my daily life as a child: a slow cooker in the corner of the kitchen opaque with condensation and the repetitive and ignored instruction of “do not lift the lid!”
There was also stew, and once she showed me how to fry a steak in a cast iron skillet with salt. Apparently she also made pork chops, because those were my favorite meal (I was told) when I was very young. I recall French toast (so well I made her imprecise recipe—the mark of a frequent, confident cook— by heart just last weekend,) but more often I ate Ego waffles with peanut butter and syrup, which my mother calls “syrple,” (syrup and maple, would be my guess, though I never asked because it was just what she called it).
At a summer block picnic when I was around 12 a neighbor commented on my mother’s “famous strawberry pie.” As someone born from her insides who also loves both strawberries and pie I was outraged to have been kept in the dark and stood, for three hours, in awe as I watched my supposed cooking impaired mother deftly make a short bread pie crust and do a strawberry glaze and reduction. Who knew?
Certainly she would, on occasion, get the “itch” to cook. When we were given two enormous zucchinis that weren’t sold from the church vegetable stand I was surprised to come home and find my mother in the midst of making zucchini bread—something I’d never, in 15 years, known her to do, mention or even eat. And when my grandmother died and we inherited her favorite cook book and dog-eared oatmeal cookie recipe, I was shock, disappointed and impressed when my mother knew how to roll the dough in a parchment paper cylinder shape and let it cool for two hours prior to slicing it into cookie shapes.
But, for the most part, I ignored the notion that my mother could cook, or had cooked—the little metal box filled with seventies prints of fruit and veggie recipe cards, the tell-tale signs of her interest and exchanges with others; to be honest, made me a little uneasy. There were whole things my mother had started and more or less tired of, before I could even remember—Possibly before I’d even been born. Who likes to think their mother might have had a full life without them in it? Not me.
Brisket, though, is an entirely different thing. My guess would be, the hearty cooking of my childhood is now somewhat in vogue, like fondue in the seventies or allowing beer at a dinner party in the sixties (hence my new interest in cooking a brisket)—a little edgy to go back to the 8 hour slow roast of a side of beef (I don’t even eat meat). And what better way to do the fad well, than to have your mother’s recipe? Maybe to have your grandmother’s? I’m sure she had one, too.