When I venture into the kitchen with a slab of beef brisket, I like to braise it, not brine or barbecue it. Nor do I care to Italicize it in bollito misto or Cubanize it with spicy chorizo and squash, all of which, and much more, Stephanie Pierson urges in her exuberantly global “The Brisket Book.”
I mean, what does classic brisket, a la Juive, have to do with anything more than a heavy old pot filled part way up the side of a well-seasoned and seared beef brisket with wine, stock or just water and slow-cooked in a 325 F oven for three hours? You can pour in Coca Cola or Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup if you must, as in some funky circa 1950s versions.
Not that Pierson renounces brisket orthodoxy. Au contraire! Her book is chock full of good recipes and advice on the traditional European braise and its Judeo/American permutations. But this self-proclaimed “brisketeer” wants to push us further, and push she does, to Brisket Land! That’s where brisket recipes, professional tips, product endorsements, poetry, blog posts and humorous shtick are served up by dozens of Pierson’s foodie friends and colleagues.
I start to feel queasy just browsing through the book’s cacophony of textual rhythms and riffs. Add the potpourri of visual stimuli, including color photos, line drawings, cartoons and anatomy charts, and I’m hyperventilating. But then Pierson slows down. And when she focuses on the fine points of brisket cookery, I catch my breath and start learning: about the sustainable care and feeding of cattle, bovine anatomy and butchery, and the simple techniques and professional tricks for transforming an often tough or stringy cut of meat into something melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Loving brisket to death, and then some
More and more, top chefs and food writers are confessing their secret passions for humble, sometimes strange and even junk foods. Guilty pleasures. In Pierson’s case, the fixation on brisket has all the giddiness of a teen magazine’s confessional love story. The book is subtitled, after all, “A love story with recipes.” And so, like any excited young lover, Pierson, who authored a cookbook for teenagers called “Vegetables Rock!,” can hardly contain her passion. “I’ll confess to obsession,” she says, and for more than 200 pages the confession and the briskets roll on.
I know all about obsessive/confessional first books on loved foods: My book, “The Book of Garlic,” published almost 40 years ago, was the first to focus on another humble, cheap and globally popular staple, Allium Sativum. I totally understand Pierson’s heady pronouncements, such as “Now brisket has its own book. Not just any book: the definitive brisket book.”
Which begs the question; can a book be judged “definitive” if it’s the first and only one? And, more important, can the first edition of any cookbook possibly be the last word on any culinary subject?
Inevitably, I predict, when Pierson’s seemingly limitless lust for brisket simmers down, she will make some changes to her grand treatise. My garlic book went through three revisions in its first 10 years and I’m still not done with it.
For the second edition
So here, then, are a few more observations and suggestions for the next edition of “The Brisket Book,” offered in collegial good faith by a fellow confessional food obsessive:
Cover design: I’m sure that many readers will delight in the cute cow illustration used on the cover and repeated throughout the book. But how did Elsie the cow, Borden Dairy Company’s classic 1930s logo, get reincarnated for a sophisticated cookbook on bovine breasts? Replace cover.
Product placement and plugs: The multiple photos and endorsements for Le Creuset pots suggest some sort of quid pro quo, especially when Le Creuset’s company website is a link on “The Brisket Book” website. Reduce number.
The poem “Pot Roast” by Mark Strand: Why? Just a few pages before the poem we read, “While a braised brisket is like nothing else, it is often confused with its boring cousin, pot roast.” If you can’t find, or commission, or write an actual brisket poem, why stoop to pot roast, even from a Pulitzer Prize winner? Delete poem.
Profile of “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine and publisher Chris Kimball: In the lead-up to the “perfect” recipe for braised brisket from a 2005 issue of “Cook’s Illustrated,” there are five pages of flattering text, no doubt well-deserved, on the magazine and its publisher, little of which has anything to do with brisket or the book. Delete profile and add relevant points to recipe intro.
Photo edits: The un-credited photo in the book’s chapter on “The Amorous Brisket” stands out like a sore thumb. Well, worse: A young, hunky guy wearing a skimpy apron is facing a stove and looking amorously over his shoulder at the camera. He is “butt naked.” Delete photo and save for the definitive cookbook on rump roast.
It’s as if “The Brisket Book” is actually two books — one I love and one that irritates me. Only time will tell whether Pierson’s opus will congeal, like the sauce in a slow-cooked braise, into the one definitive book on the subject. And with some sensible and tasteful revisions, I think it can.
Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)
Top photo composite:
Book jacket and Stephanie Pierson, courtesy of Andrews McMeel Publishing
Cartoon credit: L. John Harris