(Published in Dovetail, Winter 2007.)
Tofu Brisket
by Susan Hart Hellman

As a strict vegetarian, I never allow the words meat, fish, and fowl to cross my lips. My pizza (all-vegetable, all-organic, dairy- and gluten-free) would never share a take-home box with someone’s double cheese, all-meat. And never does anything that flew, swam, or walked cross my lips coming in.

Never, that is, until a plate of steaming, thin-sliced brisket appeared in front of me recently at the home of a new Jewish friend and her husband.

“Old family recipe. A tradition,” my hostess beamed.

I smiled too, lips stretched tight across clenched teeth.

“A delicacy,” her husband nodded. “Beef brisket, Jewish style.” He began to lick his lips.

I began considering what to do. Should I refuse the brisket based on my tradition: no meat? I could illustrate by adding how the anxiety I experienced after accidentally touching a piece of KFC had sent me straight to the ER. But what if these new friends took it wrong? What if they thought I was being disrespectful of their tradition, their heritage . . . and beef? I grabbed my fork, and unclenched my teeth. I knew what I had to do.

“Dig right in,” the husband said. “Don’t be shy.” He cut a giant piece. “There’s plenty for seconds too.” I cut a tiny bite, but taking note of his already emptied plate, I cut off a giant bite too. Why suffer through this quarter-inch by quarter-inch? The husband looked at my friend. “Just one word to describe this brisket, honey. Just a single word. Delectable.”

Trying to gather the courage to actually chew, I also produced a single word: tofu. If Tofurkey had already been invented, could tofu brisket be far behind?

“Lovely evening!” I told my hosts as I left later. “Great meal!” I added, actually meaning it after drinking the copious amounts of wine it had taken to wash the unchewed meat straight down.

“Let’s do this again” my friends said. “How about Hanukkah, in a few days.” “Wonderful!” I gulped. Once again, I thought of the tofu turkey. “I’ll bring the brisket. A culinary delight, something special. A . . . a . . . a surprise.”

Halfway home, walking the several blocks from my friend’s house, I continued marveling at my idea. What fun it would be cooking a tofu brisket!

But another half block, and it hit me. I froze. I’d promised to do what? Make a culinary delight? Had I lost my mind? Somehow, I’d forgotten that I can’t cook.

I bounded home and threw my front door open, then charged the computer screen, the only bright spot in the house, and probably in my entire life. On the edge of my chair, I prayed, “Key words. Please, please, key words!” If someone actually wanted to find a recipe and cook a brisket-a puzzle to me in this age of perfectly good take-out-surely the Internet was the place to go. After several minutes, two keywords finally popped into my mind, and I typed them in: Recipe! And brisket!
For the first time that night, I relaxed. My keywords had paid off, and after a quick scan of the 164,000 corresponding item titles, I selected item 159,649. But the situation became tense, again, when Brisket: Beef, or veal appeared in 24-point Helvetica at the top of my screen. These large meat words sent a shiver up my spine. If I couldn’t even handle a title, how was I going to get through the recipe, itself?

“Edamame!” I said out loud. “Tempeh.” That was it; substitution just might work. I began to read. “Specifically,” the recipe began, “brisket meat is cut from the lower chest.” I took a deep breath and substituted “Soy bean pods, 1-3 inches in length, hanging in clusters of 3-5, are cut from the stem of a bright green, 6″ plant. Specifically.” I read on. “Traditionally, in Jewish cooking, brisket meat is braised like a pot roast.” Pot roast? My blood pressure shot straight up. Just how many meat words were there going to be? Fortunately, my brain then began converting quickly, and for “Order a 5# piece of bright red meat delicately laced with white fat,” I saw only “Order the-the yellow miso soup, delicately laced with green onion.” I scrolled down to Preparing the Traditional Jewish Brisket: ingredients. Spices, garlic and onions, tomatoes, celery, carrots, and red wine, it said. Of course there was another ingredient listed, too, but by now my substitution skills had been perfected, and the recipe’s “one 5-pound premium beef brisket” became “6-8 cartons of extra firm tofu” to me.

The proof is in the eating. The day before Hanukkah, I awakened early and examined my new roasting pan and my cartons of tofu. What a challenge this would be; but after reviewing hundreds of Internet recipe photos, I had a plan: Simply toothpick the 6-8 blocks of tofu tight together, arrange them brisket-style, and no one would ever know my brisket was tofu! Congratulating myself on my creativity, I smoothed the recipe on the counter. “Rub with garlic, sprinkle on spices.” Then, I seared it all in oil and topped it with tomatoes, just as the recipe said. The next part was harder, but with the aid of two large spatulas, I maneuvered my brisket, atop layers of sliced onion rings, intact. Piece of cake! I thought. Well, large piece of tofu, anyway. The next evening, Hanukkah, I was the one beaming as I placed plates of my hot, sliced tofu brisket on the table. Eagerly, I watched my friend’s husband cut a king-sized bite.

“Dig right in.” I pushed his plate closer. “Don’t be shy; there’re seconds too.”

“Delectable!” he raved. “And this beef is so tender, I can cut it with a fork.” He pulled half a toothpick from his mouth. “No wonder you’ve toothpicked it together; it’s so tender it just falls apart.”

My friend nodded. “Delicious. Where did you get the recipe?” “Just an old family traditional brisket recipe.” I smiled to myself at my omission: no reason to say my recipe was only 48 hours old. The husband took another helping. “It’s an unusual brisket, though. Traditionally, what does your family call this?”

I stopped beaming, and breathing too. Of course, they would expect an old family recipe to have a name. An image of the tofu turkey flashed through my mind. “Traditionally,” I smiled to myself again, “we call this special brisket dish Tofrisket.”