Brisket Cook Off
March 18, 2017
6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
Chicago Sinai Congregation
15 W. Delaware Place
A conversation with Penny Pollack, Brisket-Off judge, Chicago magazine dining editor, and Chicago Sinai member
Until recently, Penny Pollack was invisible.
Following in the tradition of great restaurant critics like New York magazine’s Gael Greene (and others), Penny disguised herself while working. She didn’t call for reservations. Use her given name. Talk at meals. Sat at the worse tables. Even stood behind a screen on TV.
That’s done. “I’ve come out of the pantry,” Penny smiles. “These days any attempt at anonymity is gone … thanks to social media and instantaneous restaurant reviews, it’s lived its life. I’m fine with that. As I was when we at Chicago first thought about it ten years ago. Besides, this is one of my first ‘public’ airings – and who better than for Sinai?”
We sat down with Penny over a meal (where else?) to talk career (“I’m a workaholic”). Understand her brisket biases (hint: consider H₂O). And, in general, introduce one of Chicago’s best-known names to other Sinai members.How did you land your Chicago magazine gig?
I ate my way to the top. Seriously, I understand food. I’m a great cook. And I’m a highly organized, analytical, and detailed individual. It helps, too, that I’m good at spotting trends and being an early adaptor. Think about small plates. The cauliflower and kale obsessions. Buying bread for a meal, instead of a free basket. I was one of the first to report on these; being ahead of the curve is, after all, a point of honor for me. I started 30-some years ago at Chicago as a keyliner [a pre-digital magazine publishing ‘technology’] and a part-time assistant to the dining editors. My world started to shift: Making phone calls, checking facts, transcribing notes, accepting invitations to dining excursions. From that, I developed my own style – and was named dining editor in 1994.What’s the best part of your job? The worse?
Everything’s the best. The food. Hospitality industry people – they’re lovely. Being in the know. Being able to create [Penny points out that the magazine’s current Dish blog was the successor to her Morsels weekly news]. The worse part: expense reports.Is this your first judging competition?
I don’t think so. It’s sure not Tony’s [Mantuano of Spiaggia, Bar Toma, River Roast et al.] first.What to you is a great brisket?
First, things should taste like what they’re supposed to taste like. Let the meat shine. The simpler the recipe, the better the dinner. I still have my mother’s hand-written instructions, which always produce a really tender, deeply flavorful, and a little fatty meat. All that leads to juicy.Can you give readers a few more hints?
Cook it the day before.Seriously? That’s all?
Don’t get the leanest piece of meat. Buy a whole brisket; I want all of elements of the second cut, the deckle, to infuse the entire brisket. Put it in water, not in ketchup or onion soup. Create pockets and insert garlic, then use leafy spices like oregano and basil. And remember: patience is a virtue.Who, in your opinion, makes the best brisket?
At the James Beard Awards Gala [held May 2, 2016 in Chicago], Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, served an amazing Western-style brisket. There aren’t enough descriptors: A little smoky, tender, juicy, seductive, all-enveloping …Any more memories?
As a kid I hated brisket. I thought it was old people’s food.Obviously, you’ve changed.
Believe it or not, I was a yeshiva bocher [literally, a yeshiva youth]. We grew up in an Orthodox shul. So organ music and the absence of kippahs or davening made me uncomfortable. It took me a long time to evolve and understand Reform Judaism – and join Kol Ami. So when it folded, we became KAM members [Hyde Park]. I soon realized that unless the temple was in my ‘hood, I didn’t have a prayer of being active or even attending temple. Chicago Sinai was the answer. I enjoy the people, the rabbis, the staff – and feel at home here.Thank you, Penny. We’re all looking forward to your March 18 debut!
There’s still time to participate in the Brisket-Off – in any one of four ways: As a chef, sous chef, food critic, or non-brisket eater. No matter which persona you choose, make sure you’re in the game by emailing your response to firstname.lastname@example.org.