The Passover Brisket Caper
By Bruria Lindenberg Cooperman
As Pesach approaches, memories begin to flood back. Childhood escapades of looking for the afikomen or teenage angst being played out at the table are a few. Even my seder in Japan stands out. But the one that is particularly memorable happened just a few years ago, when I was still a newlywed. Let me explain that I was 46 at the time, a new bride in our nation's capital, stepmother to two grown daughters and a teenage son at home, in addition to two goldfish, a hamster and a dog named Kafka.
It began innocently enough. Two weeks before the first night, I was well aware that other women had already been cooking for weeks. It was the focus of many talks in between sorting UJA cards. Knowing I was at a disadvantage having no experience at this game and still finding mystery in the intricacies of running a Jewish home I did manage to learn one thing. Put in your kosher meat order in advance. I had also learned obviously through osmosis from many years of observing my own mother that no upstanding Jewish household would dare to present an meager offering.
Rule number one: Make enough food to feed no less than the thousands of Jews who escaped out of Egypt. Rule number two requires you have a minimum of three starchy dishes greens are incidental and need only appear on the seder plate. And rule number three, just in case you just happen to run out of food, get a brisket!
There she was, my mother, at the counter, cleaning, peeling, cutting and cooking. She would suddenly stop the preparations, look up, then start counting in her head, then counting again, trying to figure out how much she would need. After the hundredth time, she would turn to my father and say in that not-to-be-questioned tone of voice: "Favick, just in case, you better go to Saul and get a brisket
just in case!"
Saul was my father's best friend and luckily, the kosher butcher. But Saul lived in Hamilton. I was going to be smarter. I was going to order the brisket before-hand. It began well enough but suspiciously, too well
"One large turkey, please
No large turkey? Okay, I'll take the medium. Then a medium-sized prime rib
No medium? Okay, I'll take the large
And give me a brisket.
I couldn't believe what followed
"No, no briskets!"
"What do you mean no briskets?"
"We ran out of briskets."
"How could you run out of briskets? It's Passover. You need a brisket for Passover. Who ever heard of Passover without a brisket?
"We ran out of briskets."
"How could you not have briskets?"
There was no answer.
I couldn't believe it. Ottawa, the nation's capital. Jews have been here since the middle of the last century. That's a hundred and fifty years of briskets at Passover. We're less than two hours away from Montreal brisket central. It's not like we're living in the Yukon. Though I know in my heart of hearts that Jews there had brisket for Passover.
My husband who had been keeping his distance during this skirmish tried to interject a note of calm
There'll be enough food
What are you worried about?
Can we talk? Husbands do not understand. Besides not knowing how to load a dishwasher properly, they just don't get it. My identity as a newly-minted Jewish mother was at stake here. I had 25 years of catching up and I was failingdismally! My parents would be there! The kids were looking forward to the event. The picture was incomplete without brisket.
He was right, I consoled myself. Every holiday I suffered the same anxieties and in the end we were left with enough for an army
My mother used to end every holiday meal the same way: "We could have had twenty more!"
The next day found me at another UJA meeting. As business wrapped up, talk naturally turned to Passover preparations. My chairperson said she had already picked up her second order in as many weeks. Panic rose up again. I asked her, jokingly of course, if perhaps she had been hoarding the briskets.
"But I only bought two!" she replied plaintively.
"Laura!" I cried, "Ottawa was only allotted four!"
We laughed, albeit nervously, wished each other a 'happy holiday' and left with words unsaid.
I was now on a mission. I remembered what Reta, my JCC locker buddy, had told me two days before. After exchanging the usual hi-s and how- are-you-s, naturally, talk led to Passover who's coming, who's not, who's going where and what was being served. Never one to let a good story go untold at least to anyone willing to listen I recounted for her and anyone else within shouting range my brisket dilemma. She had her own story of heartache. Was I surprised? It seems when she called her usually accommodating butcher in Montreal, he begged her to wait until after the holidays he could get her anything then but not for Passover. He added, half crying: "The butchers are very temperamental this time of year." Feeling sorry for the man, she said it was okay, she would just stick to turkey
But, she informed me in a whisper, if I still wanted a brisket, she knew where I could buy one. Last time she checked, they had a few left.
I rushed home and informed my husband who knew by now it was useless to argue or reason. I taped a reminder post-it for him to call the following morning. At this point, I couldn't handle the possibility of rejection.
Early the next morning, with one day left, he called. Yes, a brisket was available. And yes, we could pick up the brisket that morning! But come that morning
later they couldn't guarantee. My husband insisted I leave immediately, afraid this endless saga would continue until the next holiday. Still wearing my sleepy face and sweats, I got into the car and ran over.
I entered the shop and gave my name. The butcher disappeared into the backroom. I waited with trepidation. I saw a familiar face, someone from the community but we both pretended we were just there casually. The butcher came out with the brisket already wrapped and in brown paper and string. No words were passed. No identifying marks, just a brisket. I paid and left.
I ran over to Loblaw's to pick up my original meat order and finish up with other items missed the first two trips. But now I could relax. I strolled, I schmoozed, secure in the knowledge that I had a brisket hidden in the back seat of my car. I even had time to run over to a pump class at the JCC. I was well aware of the eating that would follow in the next few days.
I spotted my husband in the exercise room and went in.
"Did you get the brisket?" he called out.
Upon hearing this, two regulars joined in, both talking at the same time.
"You found a brisket? My wife has been searching everywhere
There are no briskets? Where did you find a brisket?
Today you found a brisket? Have you ever heard of such a mishegass in your life? It's Passover and there are no briskets. It's a crying shame. How could you not have brisket??? --- weeks before we tried but we couldn't get a brisket!!!"
The brisket had taken on a life of its own
Reta appeared, adding to the already dangerous level of pre-Passover anxiety. She couldn't contain herself. There had been a brisket-spotting. Just minutes earlier, she happened to mention my predicament to someone in the change room who also had trouble procuring a brisket. But after applying the pressure on the right people combined with a dose of guilt, she had been able to secure two briskets. When she heard of my plight she volunteered to give me one of the briskets. It's nice to see how people still rally together during the hard times
In fact, there she was. On her way home, no doubt, to cook her brisket. I went over and thanked her. She also had a brisket tale to tell. Why wasn't I surprised?
I rushed to class. As I was getting my equipment ready, out of the corner of the room came a small voice, "I heard you had trouble getting a brisket."
All hell broke loose. Everyone had a brisket tale from the trenches.
"You think you had trouble
Afterwards, in the change room, someone asked, "How are you making the brisket?
I had no idea of how to cook a brisket
- My father informed me that in Hamilton, they ran out of kosher turkeys!
- My cousin down south (names and places must be withheld to protect the guilty) told me that her husband's cousin, who had handled the butcher's wife's divorce, had to go out of town to get his brisket.
from the April Passover 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine