In 1969, Georges Perec published La Disparition, a mystery novel of sorts. The book centers around the disappearance of Anton Vowl, and traces his winding path through the various chapters of his life – though chapter five is omitted. La Disparition, or “The Disappearance,” is a story and not a story. The novel tells a tale, but also functions as an exercise. Which captures the essence of Georges Perec.
Georges Perec belonged to OULIPO, a workshop of famous French authors. The workshop for potential literature (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) was both a place and a style. One of its co-founders, Raymond Queneau, published Exercises de Style, in which he wrote the same story ninety-nine different ways. This was hardly unusual. Perec, Queneau, and the other members delighted in wordplay. They wrote S-7 poems (reworking famous poems by replacing every word with the seventh word following it in the dictionary), snowball verses (start with one word and add a word a line, until you reach eleven words, then reverse), bilingual poetry (poems that could be easily understood in two languages), acrostics, anagrams, and palindromes. Famously, Perec penned a palindrome of 5,000 words.
Which is why Perec was capable of writing La Disparition, a novel that does not contain a single letter “e.” Not one. Not to worry — Perec brought all the e’s back in Les Revenentes, a novel in which the only vowel used is the letter “e.”
Cooking for friends and family can sometimes feel like the cooking equivalent of a lipogram. Someone hates fried food; your brother only eats fried food. Your sister is on Atkins; yet her boyfriend craves carbs. Someone is lactose-intolerant. Someone else is vegetarian. A third is gluten-free. And a fourth is allergic to nuts and shellfish. The list of allergies and diets, likes and dislikes, is seemingly endless. And these constraints can sometimes feel as limiting as constructing an e-less novel (or book, I should say).
But Perec didn’t see it that way. For him, the experience was liberating rather than stifling. Being forced down so many “intriguing linguistic highways and byways” became inspiring, and pushed him to create. It was a stimulant for writing modern-day fiction.
The same may be true of constrained cooking. The next time someone invites you to make them a lactose-, gluten-, and nut-free meal, think of Perec, La Disparition*, and this beef brisket, and just tell them you would love to, I mean, that you can’t wait.
*For those interested, La Disparition has been translated into English, as A Void.
Recipe adapted from Tyler Florence.
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 4 hours
YIELD: Serves 6 to 8
WHAT TO GRAB:
4 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
4 sprigs fresh rosemary, needles stripped and chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3- or 4-pound beef brisket
Ground black pepper
6 large carrots, cut into 3-inch chunks
4 celery stalks, cut into 3-inch chunks
2 large red onions, quartered
2 cups dry red wine (I used a California Merlot)
14-ounce can whole tomatoes, hand-crushed (I like Carmelina)
1 handful fresh Italian parsley leaves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour (optional)
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Preheat a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
2. On a cutting board, mash the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt together, to form a paste. Add the chopped rosemary and continue to mash until incorporated. Put the garlic-rosemary paste in a small bowl and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir to combine.
3. Season both sides of the brisket with a fair amount of Kosher salt and ground black pepper. Turn the heat over the frying pan to medium-high. Sear the brisket to form a nice brown crust on both sides.
4. Remove the brisket to a large roasting pan. Lay the vegetables all around the brisket and pour the rosemary paste over the whole thing. Add the wine and tomatoes, then toss in the parsley and bay leaves. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and transfer to the oven. Bake for 3 to 4 hours (I baked it for 3 hours and 40 minutes), basting every 30 minutes with the pan juices, until the beef is fork tender.
5. Remove the brisket to a cutting board and let it rest for 15 minutes. Scoop the vegetables out of the roasting pan and onto a platter. Cover to keep warm. Pour out some of the excess fat, and pour the juices into a saucepan. Boil the juices over medium-high heat for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce is reduced by about a half. I reduced my sauce from 3 cups to 2 cups. If you want a thicker sauce, mix 1 tablespoon of flour with 2 tablespoons of wine or water and blend into the gravy.
6. Slice the brisket across the grain (the muscle lines) at a slight diagonal, and serve with the sauce and roasted vegetables!