Annie’s Wine Baked Brisket and the Multi-Cultural Collaboration That Became a St. Patrick’s Day Tradition

Cows are sacred, salt is expensive, cross the sea trading is prohibited and immigrants had to get to New York. In a nut shell, those are the four substantial situations that had to occur in order to bring brisket to your dining tables today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day dear readers!   Today’s post is all about a traditional Irish food that actually is, in reality, a multi-cultural collaboration between three countries.  While it is certain that many a crock-pot will be simmering away today in honor of the holiday, and the famous corned beef and cabbage that has become associated with it, you might be surprised to learn that the propulsion for this traditional heritage food actually has more to do with New York City than Ireland.

The Kerry cow is considered to be the oldest breed of cattle in Ireland.

It all started back in Ireland’s ancient times when cows were considered sacred animals. Valued for their milk and their strength over anything else, Irish cows were essential components to a working farm and were never considered a viable meat source. But England adored beef, particularly roasts, so much so that by the 1600’s, England couldn’t keep up with their own country’s supply and demand.  So they went to Ireland to see about some cows.

A good revenue stream for the Emerald Isle, and a can’t-live-without-it commodity for England, this cow commerce between countries was mutually beneficial for all.  That is until the Cattle Acts of the 1660’s. In an instant, thanks to the Act, the sale of live cows to England was no longer allowed.  The sudden halt in commerce left Ireland scrambling for a solution and left England grumbly with hungry bellies.  This all came about at a time when salt was also an extremely expensive ingredient in England. Ireland, on the other hand, was not only flush with cattle but also abundant with coastal salt pans. The combination of these two  riches formed a clever way for Ireland to package meat for export that skirted around the law. They created a new method of food preservation called corned beef – a salted meat product that could withstand time and travel to England without spoiling.

Coming from the brisket cut of the cow (located between the front knees and the shoulder area) this salt infused food was named corned beef because of the corn kernal-sized salt crystals used in preserving it.  Generally known as a tougher piece of meat since that area of a cow’s body gets quite a lot of exercise, early corned beef was essentially just a slab of meat that was rumored to taste more like salt than beef.

Commercial Cuts of Beef chart from the Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, 1967 edition

Because it was shelf stable, easy to prepare and came in bigger portions, corned beef became a popular staple in the diets of 18th century Englanders as well as sailors away at sea for long stretches of time. It even made its way into the diets of Early American colonists who were struggling to produce food for their new country. The only people who were not enjoying this salty slice of protein were the Irish, who, in a terrible twist of irony, couldn’t afford to buy the very product they were exporting.

Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It would take one more century and a move to America before Irish immigrants were able to afford and enjoy the corned beef that made their home country famous. In the mid-late 1800’s, a majority of the butcher shops within the New York metropolitan area were owned and operated by Jewish immigrants.

The Lustgarten family owned a Jewish butcher shop in NYC in the late 1880’s. Photo courtesy of tenement.org

Living in close knit communities, both Irish and Jewish transplants bonded over feelings of displacement and discrimination experienced in their new world. Financial resources were a challenge for most city dwellers, but especially for these two ethnic groups in-particular, as they faced prejudices in work and social environments. Luckily, food brought them together via thrift and necessity and novelty.

Market shopping along NYC’s Mulberry Street in 1900

Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants were delighted to discover that corned beef was much less expensive in New York then it was back home in Ireland. Likewise,  Jewish immigrants liked brisket because it was one of the least expensive cuts in the butcher shop and could feed a crowd.  Through experimentation in their New York City kitchens,  Jewish and Irish newcomers developed the low, slow cooking methods that eventually evolved brisket from a salty slab of preserved meat into a rich and flavorful meal.  Cabbage was often paired with it since it was the least expensive vegetable. Both cultures developed their own trademark dishes – slow simmered corned beef and cabbage for the Irish and smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for the Jewish community. Each specialty stemmed from the humble brisket cut.

Beef Chart from the Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook circa 1948

Today’s recipe focuses on the Jewish side of cooking, with a brisket that quickly browns in butter on the stove top before heading into the oven for a slow simmer in red wine. If you are not a fan of the saltiness of traditional corned beef, or are wary of the seasoning packet that comes in most store-bought brisket kits, this recipe is a great alternative, since you can control your own level of spices. It comes from Annie, an avid cook, and a world traveler who lived in New York for most of her life. A dear friend to my father, she’s proud of her Jewish heritage and is famous for many signature dishes including homemade horseradish (more on that in a future post).

Annie sent this recipe to my dad over email 15 years ago while she  was at sea traveling between Buenos Aires and Santiago.  The trip was rough with wild waves and cold temperatures but Annie was more than happy to take a few moments to share her way of making brisket. In our modern age, email letters aren’t quite as pretty as handwritten ones – but the sentiment is there nonetheless. My dad has hung onto her correspondence for over a decade and a half. I discovered it recently, tucked inside one of his favorite cookbooks.

Although it requires two days to make, it is very simple and involves just a few ingredients. I used grass-fed beef from the farmers market and a red wine blend called Sheep Thrills for the fun pun. Also, Annie cooks like James Beard recommends – with your intuition – so she doesn’t specify in her recipe exactly how much seasoning to use. In the directions, I share my method, but you may want to add more or less depending on your preference.

Annie’s Wine Soaked Beef Brisket

4-5lb beef brisket ( I used a 3.5 lb grass-fed beef brisket)

4 tablespoons butter (only necessary if using grass-fed beef)

6-7 onions

4 stalks celery

2 bay leaves

2 cups red wine

Onion Powder

Garlic Powder

Celery Salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the brisket from the packaging and let rest on the counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are using frozen grass-fed beef make sure that it has completely thawed in the fridge before beginning this recipe. Do not trim the fat from the brisket.

Seasonings with dots of butter on top before the flip to brown the other side.

In an ovenproof pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium high heat, add the butter (but only if using grass-fed beef, otherwise omit the butter). Generously sprinkle each side of the meat with the onion and garlic powders and the celery salt (I did about five passes on each side with each of these seasonings). Brown the brisket, fat-side down, for 5 minutes on each side.

Roughly chop the onions and the celery and add them to the brisket pan.

Pour in the red wine and add the bay leaves. Cover and bake in oven for 2 to 3 hours or until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. (Note: Grass-fed beef cooks faster then grain-fed beef, so watch the temperature and time closely.  My 3.5 lb brisket came out exactly at the 2 hour mark.)

Let the brisket cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight it in the same pan that you cooked it in so that all the juices can soak back up into the meat.

The next day, remove the pan from the fridge and scoop off the top layer of fat.

Remove the onions and celery to a blender and mix until well combined. This will form a thin au jus style gravy which is delicious for dipping.

Transfer the au jus to a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Next, thinly slice the brisket and serve cold or at room temperature alongside the au jus and/or with your favorite condiments like mustard, mayo or horseradish.

This style of brisket is perfect for French Dip style sandwiches served on crusty rolls. It also travels well for spring-time picnics and outdoor family gatherings. In Annie’s house it is a staple for many Jewish holiday celebrations.  Simple fare with a collaborative past, that’s the brisket in all its wonderful ways.

There is something lovely about Annie’s recipe that ties all the historical elements of the holiday into one tidy package. With its Irish and Jewish heritage,  its international transmittance and Annie’s New York roots, it feels like this recipe really embraces the spirit of the holiday. The parallels are endless. The recipe was written on a boat in the 2000’s featuring a food that was once eaten by sailors in the 1700’s. Annie lived in New York during the 20th century. The immigrants who helped perfect this style of cooking lived in New York in the 19th century. Annie is Jewish. The butchers who sold brisket cuts to the Irish in NYC were Jewish. Annie uses brisket to feed her family on Jewish holidays. The Irish-American community uses brisket to celebrate their national Catholic holiday.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish – it’s for everyone in America who hand a hand in building a country where people and food worked together to create new things and new traditions in a new land. Cheers to foods that continue to bring people together in surprising ways. And cheers to Annie for sharing her delicious brisket recipe.  Hope this St. Patrick’s Day is your most festive one yet!

Journey of a Norwegian American Family: An Adventure in Research

For a time, when Ms.Jeannie was small, she thought she was Asian.

She recalls a story, her mother was telling at the dining room table one night about her great grandparents, the Wongs. Certainly Ms. Jeannie didn’t look Asian, with her dark blond hair and green eyes, nor did any of her family members look Asian. But Ms. Jeannie had a wonderful imagination as a child and of course, she was a subscriber to National Geographic.

She could picture the Far East with it’s geishas, it’s red paper dragons, it’s rice fields….the silk brocades, the fishing villages, the serene gardens. She could here the gonging of the metal.

As the dinner conversation continued, Ms. Jeannie learned from her mother that in fact the Wong ancestors were not really Asian at all. They were Norwegian actually.  Their named just happened to both look and sound Asian.

Well, from that moment Ms. Jeannie was hooked. She peppered her mother with questions about her Asian sounding now Norwegian ancestors. But Ms. Jeannie’s mother knew very little, so the questions went unanswered, and the spark laid dorment for a time.

Years later, taking matters into her own hands, Ms. Jeannie emabarked on a mision to find out just who these Nordic people were. She started with this information from her mother…which turned out to be the only things that her family knew about the Wongs at that time.

So she knew that Martin & Clara had eight children and she knew there birthdates & the parents death dates. It was a mystery where they were born, where they lived, the last name of mother Clara and what happened to all the kids.

So the research began! Through careful study, the process of eliminaton and millions of census records, the mystery of the Wongs started to unravel.

Ms. Jeannie learned the Wong name was really spelled Wang (and pronounced Vang) so out the door the Asian culture theories flew!  Now that Ms. Jeannie had the correct spelling, her search got much simpler.

She narrowed it down to households containing the name Martin & Clara and all the children.  There were only two families with similiar names, one in North Dakota and on in Wisconsin. Ms. Jeannie’s grandmother was born in Wisconsin, so she started researching that family. Luckily she was on the right track! Through ancestry.com she found a few records for Martin Wang and a picture of he and Clara…

Martin & Clara Wang

Exciting! Through the information provided in the census, Ms. Jeannie learned that Martin & Clara were from Ostre Toten Norway and Hurdal, Norway respectively.   And Clara’s last name was Erickskillet. Martin applied for American citizenship in 1876 as determined by this document:

Martin Wang’s citizenship card

Martin & Clara actually had nine children. J. William Wang died when he was 12 years old. Ms. Jeannie uncovered this picture of the Wang family taken at J. William’s funeral. Everybody looks sad, especially little Edwin (the one holding the frame)…

Ms. Jeannie was on a role now – gathering various bits and pieces of information. Martin had a glass eye. He was a cabinet maker. They lived on a farm.

Martin built a church in Wisconsin:

The church that Martin built
Interior view of the church.
Contemporary picture of the church.. It’s still there!

Ms. Jeannie’s mother found a box with some old unmarked family photos and now they could add names to faces…

Wang Family Portrait
Juna Wang.

Originally everybody thought this was Nora Wang – Juna’s sister. But extra research put the right name with the right face.

Juna and her sisters.
Juna and her sister. Unidentified men -pPossibly her brothers.

Meeting other Wang family relatives on ancestry.com led to the sharing of this picture of Clara Wang in her senior years. She sure looks like a hard worker.

Seeing this picture, Ms. Jeannie’s mother realized she had  this  picture of Clara that was taken with Clara’s granddaughter.:

Clara Wang with grandaughter.

Ms. Jeannie’s mother now recalled stories  of  Clara not being able to  speak any English. The census lists the family as speaking Norwegian in their household. Possibly Martin spoke English and Norwegian, in order to conduct business in America.

Ms. Jeannie has now learned quite a bit about of information about the Wang Family. She has all their birth & death dates and places, information about all the children, who they married, where they lived and died, etc.

It’s exciting to see that Ms. Jeannie started here:

And wound up here:

Custom Ancestry Chart by msjeannieology

If you’d like help tracing your family stories and photographs, send Ms.Jeannie a message! She would love to spark your interest in genealogy!

Want to learn more stories? Watch celebrities trace their roots on  Who Do You Think You Are on NBC every Friday at 8:00pm.  They are already in their third season!

Here’s a clip from one of Ms. Jeannie’s favorite episodes from season 1 featuring Lisa Kudrow:

Who Do You Think You Are

Search for amazing Norwegian antiques on etsy.com. You never know…you might find something that once belonged to your relatives!

Antique Scandinavian Oval Wedding Box from mustnc
Antique Norwegian Baptismal Spoon from davidjp1927
1879 Norwegian Psalm Book from Bill
1927 Map of Norway & Sweden from ImSoVintage
Antique Photo Card – Lady in Norwegian Uniform from christmasangel
Miniature Norwegian Folk Art Chair from BlackRoosterVintage
1920’s Norwegian Christmas Card from BurtsFirstRodeo
1920’s Ivar T. Holt Brooch from ZoesGems