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Meals laced with laughter

Grandpa Dappy was a self-taught cook, a culinary perfectionist who taught me to keep an open mind.

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Ann Hermes/Staff

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“Dappy,” I asked calmly, “are the flames part of the recipe?”

My grandfather turned from the sink and saw fire leaping from the skillet where he’d been cooking my favorite treat, matzo brei. Frantically, he threw the hot skillet on the floor, extinguishing the fire as fast as he could.

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My grandfather thought nothing of donning the apron I bought him one holiday season – although for a man of his generation, cooking was highly irregular and wearing an apron even more so. Yet he was a natural and self-taught cook who never used a cookbook and created complicated recipes that never failed. Much later I found out that he hadn’t learned how to cook until he was 50.

“I wanted to cook the recipes of my mother,” he told me. She was an Orthodox Jew who emigrated from Russia with him and six of his siblings (he was the youngest of nine).

Once he began cooking, he was unstoppable, veering away from the recipes of his childhood to whatever struck his fancy. A culinary perfectionist, he would trek to lower Manhattan for an esoteric cheese or walking uptown for authentic Hungarian paprika. His Manhattan apartment had a galley kitchen – small but efficient – with a table he had built that seated two people. 

I spent many an hour there, keeping him company while he cooked for my grandmother and me. He chatted all the while, never losing his concentration. (Well, maybe except for the fire.)

My memories of him are infused with laughter, cooking, and mealtimes; it’s almost impossible to tease one out from the others. Dinners were replete with food and conversation. Puns abounded, as did jokes, new and old. Children were to be seen as well as heard, and he was keenly interested in what we “youngsters” had to say.

Dappy taught me to be an eclectic and gourmet diner, to keep an open mind when it came to food. His own recipe for red snapper, lavished with Hungarian paprika and poached on the stove in clam broth with clams, made me drop my “no fish” proscription when I was a child. But my all-time favorite was his brisket, served dripping with onions. 

Food, laughter, and joy – that was Dappy. He could be serious and scholarly – he loved books and learning, and kept a compact Oxford English Dictionary open for quick reference. Yet he always had a twinkle in his eye and a readiness for mischief. His adventurous spirit served him well in life and in the kitchen, where he did all for love of food and family. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?

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My grandfather's brisket

Ingredients:

3- or 4-pound fresh beef brisket, first cut (important), and not corned beef. Figure 1/2 pound for each adult, minimum 2 pounds.

3 or 4 large onions
 (not Bermuda or Vidalia)

Directions:

Peel onions and cut in thick slices. Put two or three inches of onions in the bottom of a large Dutch oven (cast iron if you can) or covered casserole dish. The onions will make a thin gravy. Put the beef atop the onions. (Some recipes call for browning it first; Dappy eliminated that step. He didn’t add any liquid at first, either, but warned me to check often.)

Cover. Cook in a 350 degree F. oven approximately 3 hours, or until fork-tender. Check every 30 minutes or so to make sure liquid remains, an inch or so. If liquid is needed, add no more than half a cup of water at a time. When done, remove from oven and let it rest 10 minutes or so to let the roast reabsorb juices. Carve the brisket on a cutting board, slicing across the grain for more tenderness. Spoon onion-flavored juice over each serving. 

Dappy always served this dish with green peas and kasha. Just follow the directions on the kasha box, and don’t omit the egg, he told me. He never cooked with salt, but would add kosher salt generously to everything on his plate – except dessert.