The Taste of Tradition
Rank #190 of 1949
About my essay:
What is it about a Grandmother’s cooking that inevitably surpasses the culinary skills of the Grand Masters every time?
The first love affair that I ever caressed, fumbled and lusted my way through involved twelve briny clams and a smoky ration of chorizo. The final piece-de-resistance of this culinary ménage a trois was a portion of crusty bread which I tore and tore again, dunking it in the pool of love that shellfish and sausage make. This was not served at some East Village tapas bar or in a timeless Portuguese dive but rather, in a temple of Formica and vinyl tile: the suburban kitchen of a grandmother’s house.
What is it about a Grandmother’s cooking that inevitably surpasses the culinary skills of the Grand Masters every time? Why do onions sweating in grandmother’s kitchen smell thrice as sweet as those in Boulud’s or Burrel’s pan? Why is childhood, with all its attendant joy and comfort present in each bite? Why can’t Nanna’s cooking ever be truly replicated?
My Grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Europe was famous for her Brisket—with flavors and textures so lush that you did not just taste them—you were enveloped by them. When the first morsel of tender braised beef touched your tongue it was as if all that was right within the universe, was now nestled deep in your soul.
When Grandmother developed Alzheimers, it became a family-priority to memorialize all of her recipes, but to be sure, her Brisket. One afternoon in a hot kitchen she taught my Aunt the secrets. She taught which cut of meat to buy (always the “second cut”), she taught the method (braising, no less than two hours but no more than three) and lastly, she trusted her with the decidedly secret ingredient (Onion Soup Mix….ugh, WHAT?!??) She told her little else, as there was little else to tell. We were all shocked! This recipe was, well, pedestrian.
Grandma has long since stopped cooking the brisket. Now it is my aunt who sweats the onions and braises the beef. For the first few years, the Brisket did not taste bad, per se but it did not taste like Grandma’s either.
Now, as the years pass, the Brisket tastes better and better--the onions, sweeter and sweeter. My Aunt has not done anything differently but each year still, the Brisket improves. How can this be? The truth is: while the brisket was always good, it was never dazzling. The tastes and the smells (Oh, the smells!) that made Grandma’s brisket so luscious---so delicious, are merely the incredibly rich taste of tradition--of family.
These tastes of tradition and the correspondingly beautiful smells of Brisket, or Carnitas or Corned Beef and Cabbage in homes around the world represent all that is beautiful about food. It represents love, family, feelings of togetherness and above all a sense of camaraderie amongst generations. I await the day when my daughter eventually serves Grandma’s brisket to her kids—even if they initially think that it is does not taste quite the same as my Aunt’s. It will.