Brisket by
(354 Stories)

Prompted By What We Ate

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Uncle Harry

My mother was insecure in life and insecure in the kitchen. Having me around made her nervous, so I was forbidden to watch. I didn’t learn to cook in her kitchen…a story for a different day. With her limited cooking skills, she cooked the same menu every week: Swiss Steak on Monday (barely edible – an insult to the neutral nation of Switzerland), some sort of chicken on Tuesday, spaghetti on Wednesday, meat loaf on Thursday, standing rib roast for Shabbat on Friday. Sunday we either brought in deli or she made her company meal of brisket and had relatives over.

She had learned to cook from her older sister’s housekeeper; I have some of her recipes. The spaghetti sauce is pretty good. She prided herself on her brisket, which I’ve come to understand was dry and not flavorful. But that was her company meal, served with canned peas and scalloped potatoes. This particular Sunday, she had my father’s oldest sister, my Aunt Pauline and Uncle Harry over. We ate in the dining room with the good china and nice linens. My mother made a careful plate with a few slices for each person at the table. But Uncle Harry had an appetite and asked for more. Mother hadn’t counted on that. She had only cut and cooked so many slices per person…no extra servings. Harry was quite upset and told her so in no uncertain terms. This was not the hospitality he was accustomed to. I was a teenager and sat quietly, absorbing the lessons of gracious hosting, even when offering dry brisket. It was a lesson not lost on this young one.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Reginald says:

    Nicely told, and encapsulates your mother well. Apparently Uncle Harry wasn’t put off by dry brisket! You say you learned a valuable lesson—did your mom?

  2. Patricia says:

    It sounds to me like your mother went out of her way to be a good hostess, but just didn’t understand the first rule; i.e. have enough food! It’s unfortunate that Uncle Harry’s reaction was one of anger, and that you had to witness it.

  3. Suzy says:

    My mother made that awful Swiss steak too — luckily not as often as once a week. She hated to cook, but did it every day for 30 years. Then, once the kids were all out of the house and my father retired, she never cooked another meal again.

  4. Sweet Story, and the concept of “company meal”- my mother always over-cooked (“enough for an army”, she would say)but we always had company, so I just never got that concept. I also love the child’s point of view of taking all the social dynamics in to mull.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, January. As I mentioned in the story, cooking wasn’t my mother’s strong suit. For more details about my mother, read my response to the prompt to “turning point”. While she was educated and cultured, she was a difficult person.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Joanna, thanks for the feedback. As I think I mentioned, this was the first story I wrote for Retrospect, when it was still in beta testing and I was new at it too. I have written more than 100 stories since then, certainly some better than others. I don’t consider myself a writer, per se, actually. I just share stories from my life with anyone who cares to read along. The subject was about what we ate. I have had lots of other chances to write about my mother since then. This story is brief, but that’s all that I felt like sharing for this particular prompt. I see another prompt coming up that I have already written, but the topic has moved on, so I may indeed update it, rather than leaving it where it was when I wrote it a few years ago. Quite frankly, it also depends what else is going on in my life and how much time I have to devote to the story. Right now, I am giving a lot of time to the new prompts coming up. I had to totally rewrite one upcoming. Then I go back, re-write, add details, etc. So editing an old story isn’t necessarily high on my priority list.

  6. Betsy, kudos on the brevity of this story…it’s like a snapshot that tells so much more than initially meets the eye. The prompt was “What We Ate” and you nailed it while giving us insight into your mother, your uncle, the family dynamic, and what I love most, you as a teenager taking it all in.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Barb. This was my first story, when Retrospect was in beta test. John Z told me he based the prompt on the first story always used at a writing workshop I attended several times on Martha’s Vineyard: “dinner at my house was…”, but he broadened it. I look back at that story and think about ways I’ve grown as a writer, but perhaps should do a better job of editing myself also. I am not always sure I know the point I want to drive home, so perhaps give too many details. Still searching for the right balance.

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