What’s so Jewish About Brisket?
If Bubbie is cooking up the classics, then brace yourself for some brisket.
Many Jews light candles but not all use a pricket. Many Jews drink wine but not all use a flasket. And many Jews enjoy eating meat but not all eat a brisket. That said, a large percentage of carnivorous Jews delight in devouring brisket, whether served on a plate, in a sandwich or simply in the palm of your hand. Of course, brisket is a staple and a favorite around holidays such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. Indeed, if your mother or Bubbie is cooking up the classics, then you better brace yourself for some brisket.
Even though many Jews enjoy eating brisket, it is fair to ask whether there is actually anything intrinsically Jewish about brisket. In other words, how has brisket become an essential entrée at Seder and other tables throughout the Jewish world? When did the Jewish romance with brisket begin?
For starters, the term “brisket” is not a Jewish word, though it sort of sounds like a Yiddish word. Many scholars believe that “brisket” derives from the Middle English “brusket” which, in turn, hails from the earlier Old Norse “brjósk,” meaning cartilage. The reason for the cartilage connection is that anatomically speaking, the brisket cut overlies the sternum, ribs and connecting cartilages. Since cows do not have collar bones (which is one reasons cows don't wear collared shirts), the muscles in the vicinity of the brisket support at least half of the cow's body weight. (Sounds like cows could really use some supportive Spanx.) For the brisket-related muscles to pull their weight and then some, they need a substantial network of connective tissue. (Yes, if your nose is constantly running and you cannot stop it, then you probably could use a network of connective tissues.)
Ask any butcher worth his or her (kosher) salt, and they will tell you that brisket's popularity in the culinary world is due in part to the fact that it is a relatively tough cut of meat that readily lends itself to super slow cooking. The kind of slow cooking that infuses the meat with a spice-filled dry or wet rub and imbues the brisket with the aroma emanating from the burning wood of hickory or other flavorful trees. With all of that said, even though brisket lends itself to slow-cooking, there ironically is nothing brisk about brisket.
As an aside, the phrase “worth one’s salt” (as used in the preceding paragraph) is relevant here because before refrigerators came on the scene, the primary method for preserving food, especially brisket and other meat, was to treat it with salt. Thus, salt was very important and, in fact, in some instances it was used as a form of currency or compensation. In contrast, few if any vendors accepted payment in pepper.
In the wonderful and bloody world of butchery, beef brisket is considered one of the nine “primal cuts” (a/k/a wholesale cuts) of beef. The other seven primal cuts include chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, shank and short plate. Let's make a single sentence using all of them: I was joking a”round” with and “rib”bing my “short”-tempered friend “Chuck” about the “loin”cloth he wore during a Purim costume contest while he was “flank”ed on either side by less provocative costumes including someone who as was dressed as a piece of matzah and who was declining the bone from a Seder “plate” by responding “Shanks but no shanks.”
Many people do not realize that brisket is often used to create such sublime delicacies as corned beef and pastrami. And prime rib and tenderloin are used to create roast beef. So, if the world had no brisket, prime rib or tenderloin, then patrons at kosher delis would be stuck choosing among turkey, baloney and salami sandwiches. Not awful choices but certainly not choice meats.
Brisket certainly is not solely eaten by Jews. It is used in other culinary cultures including but not limited to Korean, German, Thai, British, Pakastani and Vietnamese cuisine. Some scholars note that in Israel, butchers have their own special names for different cuts of beef including brisket. For example, in Israel butchers refer to brisket as “bruit” and “chazeh.” In addition, in Israel “steak ayin” is what we call rib-eye steak and rifaan (or tzalot) are chuck steaks. And in most countries, the only steaks that perfectionist butchers will not accept are . . . mistakes.
Final thought: Always keep in mind that (i) it is better to have beef with someone than to have a beef with someone, (ii) butchering a sentence is legal but butchering a person is not and (iii) filet mignon is not kosher but making a filet after a making a minyan is completely kosher.