In 1992 I landed a job in the admissions department of a small Lutheran college in New Jersey. The fact that I knew nothing about college admissions wasn’t nearly as strange as the fact that I was the only Jewish staff member, and most likely, the only Jewish person on campus.
I picked up on the way things were done and grew comfortable in my role handling computer issues, desktop publishing and learning the admissions business. One day, waiting for a staff meeting to begin, we talked about our weekends, and subsequently our meals. And although the details before this elude me, I must have mentioned brisket. A somewhat tanned, dark haired woman turned to me. I’d seen her in the office before. She was new, but we hadn’t met.
“Did you say brisket?"
I looked around. She was talking to me. “Uh huh.”
“Are you Jewish?”
I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question. “I am,” I said.
“I’m Catholic,” she said, “And I love Jewish brisket.” She moved from her seat next to me, and leaned in. “And lox and bagels. I’m the only non-Jewish person in line for bagels on Christmas morning.”
I wasn’t sure if she was just trying to make me, the lone Jew, feel at home or if she truly felt a kinship and wanted to bond over brisket and bagels.
“How do you make it,” she continued. “You know, the brisket.”
And so I told her.
That was over nineteen years ago.
I was pregnant with my son and my new friend, Renee, was thinking about getting divorced. She was 32 - practically ancient to my 27 - but we were close friends from that moment on. She was a seasoned (as seasoned as one can be at 32) admissions counselor and showed me the ropes. Renee introduced me to Martha Stewart, country clubs and Eggs Benedict. I taught her the Russian-Jewish custom of tying a red ribbon to something to ward off any ne’er-do-well (i.e. her mother-in-law) wishing her harm. That next Christmas - the last with her ex - she decorated her house with big red velveteen bows. That was right around the time I started coordinating table cloths and napkins for dinner parties.
Renee was there the day my son was born and took a hearty dose of allergy medicine to attend his Bris (she was allergic to our dog). She reveled in my new parenthood and I listened as she mourned the loss of her single home, her Laura Ashley adorned bedroom and at times, even her ex-husband.
Our friendship, the way I remember it, just happened. There were no mommy cards, no texting, no cell phones. There was no email. At least there wasn’t for me. Our campus and local diner lunches took us away from campus and enabled us to find our similarities and revel in our differences. The pot luck dinners brought varied friends together. Maybe it had something to do with being young. I think it really just had to do with it being a much simpler time - or maybe back then, I just new simpler people. And I mean that in a good way.
But then I stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom. The college closed and Renee got a new job. I moved several times. We lost touch somewhere between Renee getting her master’s degree and me and my family moving to Cleveland. I couldn’t find her even though I was online, because I didn’t know where she was. This was before the days when you could find almost anyone on Google. Her parents were unlisted. Can you imagine? As creepy as internet access can be, it lends an element of permanence to relationships. It is really hard to lose track of someone these days. But not back then.
Renee and I lost track of one another, found one another and then lost track again. And then one day - about eleven years ago — I got a phone call. It was Renee! She was packing her apartment for another move to another city and came across my parents’ phone number. She called them and they gave her my number.
Sometimes, after a long time, we hear from someone we haven’t thought of in ages. It wasn’t that way with Renee. I’d thought about her often. And even if I hadn’t, I think the key to these long-term, heavy-duty friendships is the willingness to remember the past and embrace the possibilities for the future. Would it have been easy for me to shun someone who called, after years, who lived thousands of miles away and with whom technically I had nothing in common? I had new friends in a new city and I believed I was on the cusp of an amazing life. But when someone reaches out through the years and over miles, it behooves us to slow down enough to listen and to remember those technology free years when we met and became friends because of brisket.
And anyway, it was Renee.
That night we talked and talked like we were sitting across the table in her kitchen, her dad playing with my son, sticking ten dollar bills into his one-year-old pockets. She and I filled in all the blanks - or so I thought — until I mentioned my four-year-old daughter and Renee said, “Who?”
She didn’t know I’d had a daughter.
We remedied the situation and saw Renee on a planned trip to Florida, where she lived. Another time she flew from to meet us on a different vacation. She and I spent a girlfriend weekend in Chicago. Eleven years since our reunion we have not lost touch again - on the contrary. Through more moves, job loss, my divorce and both families’ tragedies, we’re more connected than ever. And as always, she can lift my spirits with three small words…Amy, it’s Renee.
Long ago and far away we giggled innocently about a handsome professor (we were married, not blind), shared recipes (so much more than brisket), talked about our families (the good, bad and ugly) and planned our futures (boy, were we wrong).
Now we talk about being single, and not naively. We reminisce about the past and look forward to times unknown. Today, the intensity of our combined experiences is way beyond that of a chuckle. We belly laugh until we cry - or until someone has to pee.
Come to think of it, that’s the same as when I was pregnant — and Renee was on the divorce diet.
That’s what you call coming full circle.
And on any holiday, Jewish or secular, when I pull out the first-cut brisket, the pan, the ingredients and ready myself for a day of cooking, I always think of Renee. But you know what? She's never had my brisket!
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Brisket Recipes or Essential Ingredients for a Friendship
Unlike Texans, Jews don’t barbeque their brisket, we braise it like a pot roast. I started making ’sweet brisket’ when I got married. It’s a traditional holiday meal, but was unlike the brisket I grew up taste-testing in my grandmother’s kitchen. Shortly after I divorced, my grandmother passed away. I’ve only made her brisket since. Both recipes are below.
5-7 lbs. brisket, first cut
Onion salt (optional)
Garlic salt (optional)
1 12-oz bottle chili sauce
20 oz Manischewitz or other very sweet wine
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 sliced sweet onion
6 chopped carrots
3 lbs potatoes, quartered
Sprinkle seasonings over meat and rub in lightly. Sear the meat in 500 degree oven for 10 minutes on each side. Combine liquids and vegetables, pour over meat, cover and cook at 350 degrees for 3 hours. It freezes well if you invite light eaters and have leftovers.
Brisket with Gravy
5-7 lbs. brisket, first cut
Onion Soup Mix 1 or 2 packets
Sprinkle onion soup mix over meat and rub in lightly. Wrap meat tightly in several layers of aluminum foil and place in a roasting pan. Cook it at 300 degrees for as many hours as you can stand not eating it, at least 3. Slice against the grain, place back in roasting pan, cover with au jus and keep warm on 250. The more it cooks the better it tastes, it tastes even better the next day. Serve it with au jus or the brown gravy of your choice. Make it or buy it, I don’t think it matters. I’d say it freezes well too, but there’s never enough left to find out.