Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Zen Cooking

I had a zen cooking experience this weekend. Well, technically, I wasn't the one cooking, but I suppose I was consulting.

On our recent vacation to Maggie Valley we stopped in at a steak house in nearby Waynesville. To my awe and surprise Texas Style Brisket was one of the menu items. In the land of pork-n-vinegar barbecue I was literally shocked to see the word brisket staring back at me. Despite my recent leanings toward veggie fare, I decided to take the plunge and see if the North Carolinians could do a Texas specialty justice.

It was heaven. Pure, unadulterated, smoky, tender heaven. Wonderful. Even the barbecue sauce was "right."

As a result, we decided to throw a brisket into the smoker this weekend. It was B's first time out smoking the beef (wow, that sounds kinda dirty), and it brought back a flood of memories for me. My grandfather, hands down, smoked THE best brisket in the universe. He lovingly prepared his barrel smoker--arranged the charcoal, spiced his water tray with liquid smoke, beer, and only God knows what else. He cooked his briskets for a good 12 hours, and they came out charred on the outside, with a perfect smoke ring, and a juicy, wonderful interior. Texas barbecue perfection. Often, we never even bothered with the sauce, we just fought over the crispy end cuts.

While I'm pretty sure that B was annoyed with my "consulting," the whole act of trying to recreate my grandfather's specialty was very...special. I had to think back really hard to days when I was just a young child lingering next to him, peeking over his shoulder. I was too young to pay much attention to the particulars, but I was pretty amazed at what I was actually able to draw forth from the past. The specific smell of his cooking, the ashy pile of charcoal left on the garage floor afterwards, the specific texture of the meat when we lifted the lid to sneak a look.

As Barbara Kingsolver eloquently points out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (and I'm clunkily paraphrasing) we bring the dead back to us in the rituals we perform with them in mind. Whether it's gardening, cooking, or retracing a bygone childhood excursion, we can live with them again, in a moment, in a breath, in a simple act of daily life.

I didn't tell B, but it became so important to do the brisket "right" this weekend because it felt like paying homage to my grandfather. All those times he thought I was only half paying attention I was watching, learning, memorizing. I didn't even know it until now.

I think he would've been pretty pleased with our efforts. I certainly am. I have leftovers for a week! I remember that from my childhood, too. It was good to relive some of those memories, even if only for an afternoon. I'm looking forward to more practice in the future.


  1. I don't think I've ever had a zen like experience when it comes to cooking. Maybe if I did--my meals would turn out better than they usually do (I don't much like cooking!). And I really want to read that Barbara Kingsolver book!

  2. oh man that looks so tasty! i know what i'm having for lunch.

    sounds like a very sweet experience.

  3. Oh, I just loved reading this. You quoted one of my absolute favorite passages from Kingsolver's book an done I will be using in my review, as well. I've been toying with creating some sort of day each month where anyone who is interested shares some sort of family recipe or trade secret...but I need to think through it more. I'm definitely going to start finding recipes for and making dishes from my grandmothers and my mom. Maybe an "honoring your family first Sunday of each month" or something like that...

  4. That brisket just looks perfect--juicy and tasty. Homage to family through cooking, that's a double treat. :)

  5. Consulting on the cooking? I'll have to try that. It's got to be better than actually cooking.

  6. My memories of my southern grandmother all revolve around food - the preparation, the enjoyment of serving it to others, the way it was endowed with love.

    It's no wonder I was a chubby child :)

    Your brisket sounds mmm-mmm good!

  7. This was not the right place to come while I'm sitting here hungrily, in the middle of cooking dinner. I very nearly bit the computer screen! That looks delicious!!!

  8. That picture makes my mouth water. It's amazing how many of our most special memories revolve around food. It's too bad we don't always realize it at the time.

  9. LOL, Danielle. I love me some cookin'. But I didn't always. You'd love the Kingsolver I think.

    Cold, mmm mmm good!

    Courtney, I think that's a GREAT idea! I would definitely participate.

    Matt, it was deeee-licious. I've enjoyed the leftovers, too. :D

    Definitely, Stu. I highly recommend it.

    Becca same here on the chub. Mine's still hanging on, though. One of my best memories of my grandmother is canning red plum jelly. The color was just striking, and the house always smelled amazing.

    LOL, Carl!

    Amen to that, Kristy! I could think of innumerable other memories that revolve around food.


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