Every fall, on the first day that certain chill came into the air that made you dig through the dresser for a buried sweater, my mother would announce that it was time to make pot roast, because “there’s nothing cozier than coming home to a house that smells like pot roast.”
Thus, I grew up under the impression that the philosophical justification for the existence of pot roast was that it makes the house smell good. There did not seem to be any other justification, certainly not the experience of eating pot roast, which I always dreaded. The pot roast my mother made–which I believe to have been a fairly standard pot roast of 1960s-70s America–was a slab of stringy brisket which was oven-braised in canned tomato sauce to point of leathery chewiness that completely defied all received wisdom about the effect long simmering is assumed to have upon a piece of meat. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether there may have been some fatal miscalculation about the amount of liquid necessary for a proper braise, which came down on the female side of my family as a standard recipe; the pot roast often arrived at the table noticeably blackened, with the rather boastful claim that my grandmother had thought it was an art to burn a pot roast just exactly right.
So it must have gone back to my mother’s own childhood–this fierce conviction she had that the smell of pot roast incarnated the smell of Home. I would never have considered contradicting her, or in any way suggesting that spaghetti with meat sauce actually tasted better, or that perhaps in some cookbook out there might be a recipe that would be an improvement on what she considered Gospel. But it turned out that, right under her nose, there was.
One day many years later, when I had kids of my own and was living far away, I called home for cooking advice about what to do with a hunk of chuck roast I’d bought by mistake, thinking it was a fat, juicy steak. Neither of my parents was home, but the phone was answered by a friend of theirs named Bob, who told me ”Oh, you can use that for a terrific pot roast.”
“Um,” I said, “Don’t you ever ever ever repeat this to my mother, but I LOATHE pot roast.”
“Trust me,” he said. “This recipe is going to change that forever.”
I was skeptical, especially because there was no tomato sauce involved and I didn’t realize at that stage of my life that meat that hadn’t bubbled away in canned tomato sauce for hours until it finally dehydrated and turned to charcoal could be classified as pot roast. The cooking liquid in Bob’s recipe is composed entirely of Marsala wine, soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, and water. Other than that, all you need are onions, carrots, and a little minced garlic.
Diary, Bob was soooo right. This is a pot roast that tastes and chews every bit as mouthwateringly, meltingly delicious as it smells for the hours it’s braising in the oven, perfuming the house. And this is the pot roast that enabled me to sustain and validate my mother’s belief in the power of pot roast for her entire lifetime. She always remained under the illusion that one of her great triumphs was having passed this maternal tradition along to me, because indeed I often told her when we talked on the phone on a fall or winter Sunday that I was making pot roast. “You know,” she’d say, “I always thought there’s just nothing that makes the house smell cozier.”
“Well, yeah,” I’d say. “Where do you think I got it?”