Valentine’s Day: this boomer says it with brisket

Valentine’s Day, comin’ right up. When we baby boomers were, well, babies, the love-holiday wasn’t nearly as sacred as it is today! That’s something Santa Barbara humor essayist Barbara Greenleaf once learned the hard way, as she explains in this excerpt from her book, THIS OLD BODY: And 99 Other Reasons to Laugh at Life. It’s about a Valentine’s Day a few years ago.

My husband comes from a card-sending, gift-giving, party-for-every-occasion family. I do not. This became apparent on our very first Valentine’s Day when he brought home a dozen red roses and then sat back in eager anticipation of what I had gotten him.

Then he waited some more.

Although this unpleasant scene played out decades ago, my husband has never forgotten it and I, thanks to him, have not forgotten it, either.

That’s why I start worrying about Valentine’s Day right after New Year’s Eve.

At least I usually do, but this year January turned out to be a hectic month and somehow Valentine’s Day slipped my mind until I awoke on February 14th to find a lovely card from my husband propped up against the kitchen sink.

Barbara Greenleaf

My heart fell, but since he was still asleep, I had time to quickly write out an I.O.U. For fifty years the Florists’ Telegraph Delivery Association (FTD) urged customers to “Say it with Flowers.” However, in our house, brisket conveys a lot more love than even the most sweet-smelling roses. So that’s what I promised.

Brisket, in case you are not familiar with it, is cut from the lower chest or breast of the cow and is one of the nine primal cuts of beef. No matter how it’s prepared, its essence is fatty, salty, and loaded with cholesterol. In short, it’s delicious. My husband likes to think my brisket is just like the one his mother used to make. Actually, it’s just like the one Julia Child used to make in the form of boeuf bourguignon, but who am I to disillusion him?

How to make this husband-pleaser, you ask? Start with a first-cut slab of meat with some fat on it, because fat conveys the flavor. Dredge the slab in flour and sauté in rendered bacon fat, butter, and oil. Remove and sauté mushrooms and onions. Transfer all to a Dutch oven. I used to use hunter soup mix, but that was removed from supermarket shelves a long time ago. (Isn’t that always the way? As soon as you fall in love with an ingredient, it’s been made obsolete.)

Anyway, add onion soup mix, beef broth to cover and— the most important ingredient of all— Madeira wine, and lots of it. Cook for at least three hours at 350-degrees until very tender. Then, to truly develop the flavor (unless you live in the tropics and have no air conditioning), leave the dish out overnight. My sister warns that this will cause ptomaine poisoning, but I swear I haven’t lost a guest yet.

Yes, my brisket salvaged Valentine’s Day this year, but it disappeared too fast to be really satisfying. Next year I may be inspired by another venerable advertising slogan, “The gift that keeps on giving.” The only thing I can come up with is a dog, but what if my husband thinks I’ll be the dog walker?

Bad idea.

Then there’s the Victorian couplet, “When this you see, think of me.” He’s not really the pinky ring type, but as I’m in my third day of cleaning up after the brisket extravaganza, the idea of it is very tempting.

If you understand the meaning of “value-added,” we think this defines it: Barbara’s Recipe for Brisket. But beware: she told us we probably ought to post this warning, which might be only half tongue-in-cheek: “Just reading about this brisket will send your cholesterol count up to 400.”

  • Purchase brisket, “first cut,” 6 ounces per person.

  • Flour and sear the meat in oil (optional bacon fat and/or butter).

  • Sauté 1 large onion, 1 large carrot, and 1 pound of mushrooms.

  • Place all in a Dutch oven with:

    • Beef broth to cover
    • Madeira or strong red wine
    • Onion soup mix
  • Cook in the oven at 350 degrees, starting to test after 3 hours. Continue to cook until meat is fork-tender.

  • Leave out until cool and/or refrigerate at least one day to develop the flavor.

  • Pour off gravy and refrigerate. Next day, remove fat from gravy and correct seasoning.

  • Slice fat off meat. Cut into strips ¼ – ½ inch crosswise across the grain.

  • Warm meat in strained gravy and serve.


  1. I loved your Valentine’s Day story and will try your recipe for brisket for sure, which is very similar to mine. The title of your story should be “Say it with Brisket, instead of say it with flowers!”

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