A good brisket is hard to find.
Actually, any brisket was hard to find, especially at 10 a.m. on a Sunday in central Brooklyn. I was panicked. In nine hours, 15 friends were set to descend upon our apartment, famished for fall-apart-tender flesh, which requires at least six hours of cooking to break down the connective tissue. Time was ticking. My mission was imperative. Brisket was to be the controversial centerpiece of that night’s Hanukkah party, an annual dreidel-spinning hullabaloo orchestrated by my girlfriend and myself. I say controversial because my girlfriend is a vegetarian and staunchly opposed to meat cooked in our apartment.
“I don’t want the whole house to stink of… whatever it is you’re going to make,” she said, de-ribbing kale. “You’re going to drive Sammy crazy.” She motioned toward our Corgi-Chihuahua mutt. He looked at me with his big ol’ brown eyes, seemingly saying, Don’t listen to the crazy lady. I love the smell of meat. Love. It.
“It’s called brisket, and it’s my favorite Hanukkah food.” Sammy rolled onto his back, eager for a belly rub. Way to tell her!
“Well, you have to make something for me,” she said, rubbing kale with olive oil and arranging the leafy veggies on an oven tray. She’s crazy for baked kale chips. “I’m also making latkes, and last I checked potatoes are vegetarian-friendly,” I sassed back. She sighed, which meant I won. My reward was wrapping myself in warm rags and biking to Sunset Park. It was 10 in the morn, and thanks to a vicious wind the temperature only felt a few degrees warmer. But I fought the chill by pumping my ham-steak thighs up and down the hills, arriving at New Public Meat Market (5021 5th Ave. betw. 50th & 51st Sts., Brooklyn, 718-871-1188).
Since 1940, the subway car–size butcher shop has served the neighborhood immaculately sliced bits of cow and pig. During summer grilling season, it’s my go-to shop for spicy carne enchilada, salty cecina and fatty links of piquant chorizo. (More intriguing: Give the butchers a week’s notice, and they’ll charcoal-roast you a 25-pound pig for about $100.) Last time I was at New Public, I swear they had brisket.
“No brisket,” a butcher said, peering over a blood-speckled display case. “We have ribs,” he said, pointing to his chest. I shook my head and headed into the December cold. I walked my bike up heavily Mexican Fifth Avenue, peeking my head into every butcher and grocer. I could buy 20 pounds of tripe, no problem, but brisket was as rare as a Republican in Park Slope.
To warm myself up, I bought several steaming salsa verde tamales from the sidewalk vendors. “Hace frío,” one vendor said, passing me hot, husked sustenance.
I nodded. Indeed, it was cold. And I still needed brisket. I left Fifth Avenue and biked to Eighth Avenue, the chaotic heart of Brooklyn’s largest Chinatown. I first tried Hong Kong Supermarket (6013 8th Ave., betw. 60th & 61st Sts., Brooklyn, 718-438-2288), which has never failed me when I needed the odd fungus or offal. “Brisket?” I asked the butcher, who was busy sawing swine into small, pink chunks.
He looked at me blankly, as if were speaking a foreign language. Which I was. He grunted and returned to the whirring blade. Down but not defeated, I ventured into the meat markets lining Eighth Avenue. Since I don’t know the Mandarin word for brisket, I showed the meat men a bovine-butchering chart, which I summoned on my smartphone. “Brisket,” I’d say, pointing to the spot on the cow’s chest from which the meat is culled. I received blank stares everywhere, except for one butcher who retrieved a cold, bloody box. “Ribs,” he said. “Ribs OK?” No, ribs were not OK. Was there a secret Jewish conspiracy keeping me from purchasing brisket? Or maybe my girlfriend had called every Sunset Park butcher, instructing them not to sell to the short bicyclist wearing a green vest? Exasperated and colder than a skinny-dipping Eskimo, I texted my friend Ben, who is a bit of a brisket aficionado. “Fairway,” he replied. The grocery store was in Red Hook. That was more than five frostbit miles away.
If I gave up and headed home, my friends would understand. I wouldn’t. Like a Christmas ham or goose, my Hanukkah is linked to latkes and brisket. It was my childhood tradition, as wonderful a gift as anything boxed, wrapped or bowed. A thermometer reading 30 degrees can’t stop tradition. Buttoning up extra-tight, I rode to Red Hook. Inside Fairway, I bee lined to the meat department and scanned the rows of cellophane-wrapped flesh. Cursed ribs… squiggly ground beef… brisket. Brisket! With frigid fingers, I hoisted a bloody 3-pound hunk and pressed it to my chest as if it were a nursing infant. “Happy Hanukkah,” I whispered to myself, hugging the meat with all my might.