My husband is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but the smartest thing he does is buy meat on sale and store it in our basement freezer until he’s ready to cook it.
Name the holiday, and he’s at Kroger the following Monday looking for markdowns on meat. Lamb for 30% off the day after Easter? We can have it at Christmas. Half off a rack of ribs on July 5? He’ll buy two and save them for a night we have our friends over. We have two freezers in the house and regularly run out of space.
So when he came to me in October 2021 and told me he wanted to make a brisket for Thanksgiving, I really shouldn’t have been so perplexed. It had been sitting in the freezer for months, and he needed to cook it. He knew it would take 12 hours to cook, and because he had been so busy with school, he didn’t know what other day he would have the time to cook it.
I was still concerned. I grew up with Thanksgiving turkey. Sure, he made us Cornish game hens on our first Thanksgiving, but that was because turkey would’ve been too much for just the two of us. And at least it was still poultry. “How would I be able to have my Thanksgiving sides?” I asked. “I have to have my rutabagas and stuffing. They won’t go with brisket.”
Everything goes with brisket, he assured me.
I wasn’t sure he understood. Every year, I have to have rutabagas mashed like potatoes with some carrots thrown in for color and flavor. Since I was about 16, I’ve cooked it myself and even brought it to friends’ houses as my contribution to the meal. I don’t cook it because I like to cook, but because when we go to other people’s houses, they don’t have orange mashed potatoes like they’re supposed to. And if I don’t have my orange mashed potatoes every November, I cannot be happy.
He assured me everything would be OK.
I decided to text my mom, who was planning to come up from Texas for the holiday, to tell her we had figured out our menu. She was thrilled. She said she loves brisket and went on to tell me that she and my brother serve turkey at their Thanksgiving table only because his kids expect it. Both adults hate turkey.
This, to me, was more confounding than any meat pairing. It was as if my mother had been sitting on a secret for six decades. Why should a woman with the fortitude to climb to the top of the investment banking industry in the 1980s feel forced to to suffer through something she dislikes every year?
Maybe I needed to give this brisket thing a chance.
When Thanksgiving Day arrived, my husband bundled himself up to go outside and fire up the smoker. He tended to it for what seemed like forever. He wasn’t lying about not having the time on any other day to cook.
Inside, I made enough of my orange mashed potatoes to last a week. I made cranberry sauce from scratch, not because I wanted to, but because Kroger was out of the proper can-shaped stuff, and I needed some tartness on my plate. We finished things off with the usual staples of green beans, mashed potatoes and Stove Top stuffing.
When the meal came together, I was surprised to notice the plate looked better. I wasn’t looking at that bland white meat I was used to. There was color. Red, pink, brown. Oh my. All in those perfect rectangular chunks. Gravy? What gravy? This didn’t need any assistance. It was just the right mix of lean and fatty. I gobbled down those juicy slices faster than any turkey I’ve ever had.
And it wasn’t just the meat. I could have a forkful of brisket with my orange mashed potatoes or the green beans. And when the cranberry sauce spilled across the plate, I dipped the hunk of meat in there without hesitation. I couldn’t believe I ever questioned what goes with brisket.
“You may have started a new tradition,” my mom told us as she raved.
The next day, my father-in-law, another Texan, texted to say he was thinking about our brisket while he was biting into dry turkey at a relative’s house.
As we prepared to repeat the delicious tradition last year, I told some people in the locker room at yoga the same story. “I hate turkey,” one said. “But I make it because my husband insists on having it.”
Then I shared a picture of our plates with colleagues in a meeting. “Wait, is that brisket?” the one in Texas asked with excitement. “I can’t believe I didn’t think to make brisket instead of boring turkey!” said the one from Louisiana. “I love brisket.”
It’s a response I’ve heard over and over again ever since I first told people we have brisket for Thanksgiving. As it turns out, most people I know hate turkey, but they grit their teeth one day a year to eat it.
The cooks of our households have it worse: They get up at six o’clock in their futile efforts to baste an 18-pound bird so it’s easier for their families to pretend to be happy, all the while wishing they were cooking something else.
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is no law in this country that says you have to cook or eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Just because the president pardons turkeys every year doesn’t mean you have to eat the other ones. If you hate turkey, you can stand up loud and proud and say once and for all, “Enough is enough.” You can make brisket. You can make ham. You can make lasagna. You can even order Chinese food.
Take it from me.
Early Thursday morning, my husband will put a brisket on the smoker. He might even put two on there, since two more Texans will be attending the feast this year. I’ll then wake up whenever my six-month-old calls for me so I can go downstairs and start the hourly process of adding pellets to keep the fire going.
Twelve hours later, we will eat delicious brisket.
It will go wonderfully next to orange mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and creamed spinach. And because we have made bucking tradition a staple of our hyphenated household, we’ll also be eating lobster mac and cheese.
You can do the same. You can stare tradition in the face, curse it out, and create whatever Thanksgiving menu you want.
Because life is too short to eat something you can’t stand.
And everything goes with brisket.