My dad pays his dues to the Jewish faith on a scratchy orange polyester pew. He’ll sit quietly through a Yom Kippur service, and, when he knows enough of the melody, hum patiently a Rosh Hashanah hymn. He rises with the rest of the congregation when told to stand but the book of prayer in front of him stays unopened, his tiny service pamphlet never creases. We measure his faith in attendance: My mom sits with him at Seder tables or he watches my sister and me light our favorite menorahs.
Raised Catholic on the island of Sardinia, my dad met Judaism at the same time he met America, and my Jewish mom, his soon-to-be wife. He knew nothing of the religion's Hebrew incantations. He learned its trademark sardonic humor as he learned the language it was conveyed in. And eight nights in December, where people lit tableside candelabras in celebration of a centuries-old oil miracle, was as foreign a concept to him as any. Nestled in an adopted tradition, he has sought ways to carve space for himself. For this, he turns to the kitchen.
Brisket is a strangely intersectional food in our Jewish-Italian home in Houston. We eat it wood-smoked and slathered in syrupy sauces at neighborhood barbecue joints or slow roasted (and kind of dry) with onions at our temple. But for Hanukkah, my dad proposes a brisket preparation that sits somewhere apart from this continuum. His is sweet and sticky and laden with aromatic Mediterranean herbs—a perfect compromise to years spent navigating a religion that isn’t his own, but that of his family. While my mom unpacks a box of menorahs from the attic, he simmers smells from the island he left decades ago.
My dad’s Jew-ish cooking leans Sephardic. Sardinia, the bellybutton of the Mediterranean basin, has always been a convenient point of combustion for the countries—and empires—that surrounded it. The island’s shores played host to Moors and Phoenicians, great traders and distance-crawlers of antiquity. In Sardinia they eat a pasta like couscous and a round crisp flatbread with a preparation surprisingly similar to that of pita. His is a sun-kissed cooking, a stranger to the schmaltzy, tuber-centric Eastern European Jewish-American diet.
He begins by brushing the meat with saba, a dark honey-like sauce coaxed from grape must, a chunky medley of grapes, seeds, and stems. Reduced together they become a dark, fruity molasses. Like balsamic vinegar, saba is sweet and complex, but whereas balsamic is fermented, saba is not and lacks vinegar’s familiar tang. Instead the saba brings a floral levity to the brisket accentuated by cinnamon, orange rinds, figs, apricots and almonds. Every year, the brisket emerges from the oven and nestles itself between plates of latkes like a transatlantic peace offering. It is chocolatey in color with a thick sauce that hides bits of dried fruit. It has a brightness that cuts through the grease of a Hanukkah meal.
The prayers and the shawls and the letters that look like the structures at Stonehenge won’t ever stick for him. Yet tradition isn’t always accepted indiscriminately, but bit by bit—we assemble it like a Lego house. Without any formal conversion, he made for himself a personal devotion. I see it at holidays and my Bar Mitzvah and sometimes when he picks up the Hanukkah shamash (the middle candle of a menorah that you use to light the others) and helps my sister light her menorah. And I taste it in a brisket that tastes just like his home but also mine.
Brisket with Saba, Apricots, and Figs
- 1 brisket (5-6 pounds)
- 6 shallots, quartered
- 2 large onions, 1/2 inch slices
- 3 large carrots, 1 inch pieces
- 5 celery stalks, 1 inch pieces
- 1/2 bunch herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage
- peel of 1 orange, julienned
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 9 oz. jar of saba
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 1 quart chicken stock
- sea salt, to taste
- black pepper, to taste
- 12 dried apricots
- 12 dried figs
- 2 ounces whole almonds
What's the story behind your Hanukkah brisket? Tell us about some of them in comments.