‘I brought the whole cow,” Maine singer-songwriter Denny Breau says with a big laugh. He wolf-whistles behind my kitchen counter as he unwraps a bloody and impressive 5-pound hunk of beef.

It’s mid-December, and I’ve invited Breau over to cook me a pot roast, an invitation sparked by a happy chance encounter with his charming, bluesy tune, “Pot Roast.” I’ve also assembled a last-minute gathering for later in the day, since the song extols the virtues of feeding the dish to company:

“Pot roast for all your guests.

Pot roast, why not feed them the best?

Pot roast, and I’m feeling blessed

‘Cause if you think you are through I could finish the rest

Of your pot roast.”

We have filled out the menu under Breau’s direction with mashed potatoes (with sour cream and butter), string beans (plain) and coleslaw. “That’s my traditional pot roast meal,” he says, adding about the last, “There’s just something about mayonnaise that goes with everything.”

Pot roast is more than a meal to Breau, whose family is Maine music royalty – his parents were country music singers who recorded for RCA Victor, his late brother Lenny, a renowned jazz guitarist; Denny himself started performing in his teens and was inducted into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004. Pot roast is memory and nostalgia, too.

We have just one hour to get the roast into the oven. The roast will take three hours to cook, more or less, and dinner – or maybe dunch, since we’ll be eating at the unconventional hour of 3:30 p.m. – cannot be late because Breau has his own engagement that evening. He is singing a Christmas concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland with fellow musicians Dave Rowe and Phil House.

Guests are coming. There’s a lot of food to make, music to discuss, dishes to wash and a table to set. I am anxious. “Stress!” I text my boss.

Not Breau.

He arrives before I return from grocery shopping – we divvied up the list beforehand. I grab a shovel and attempt to de-ice the front steps ahead of him. He deposits the roast, also a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet, a packet of Lipton Onion Soup and a partly consumed cup of McDonald’s coffee in my kitchen, then he comes outside to shovel my stairs and walkway. I like him already.

Side dishes included mashed potatoes, green beans, cole slaw and, of course, mushroom gravy.

Side dishes included mashed potatoes, green beans, cole slaw and, of course, mushroom gravy.

‘IT’S IN THE ROTATION’

At 11 a.m. Breau is unwrapping the meat, competently chopping onions and garlic into big chunks and unscrewing a bottle of cheap supermarket red. (“You don’t need to go nuts about the wine because it’s just going to go into the gravy,” he’d instructed me.)

Precisely 22 minutes later, about the length of time it would take him to run through “Pot Roast” four times, the roast is in the oven.

The house smells fantastic; it will smell exponentially better as the afternoon goes on.

“It’s pretty easy,” he says. “It’s not rocket science by a long shot.”

The recipe is in Breau’s head. He eyeballs the amounts, measuring nothing.

“This much of that and that much of this,” he says. Come winter, he makes pot roast every two to three weeks – “it’s in the rotation” – though these days his wife and daughter are on special diets, so cooking for the family is a challenge.

Breau has been making pot roast since he was in his 20s, and at 64 years old, he’s had plenty of time to practice. It started out as his mother’s recipe, but early on he modified it to suit himself.

“My mom would never do it with Lipton Onion Soup or wine,” he says. “She always just did it very straight with water and onions. Bland. Bland. I like things that pop, and it’s pretty hard to get a pot roast to pop. It’s the gravy that pops. Put that on the meat? Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.”

Did I mention that he will be making mushroom gravy this afternoon?

Breau’s mother died 2½ years ago at age 92, and whatever one might say about her cooking – and Breau has plenty good to say about it, too – no one could knock her singing: Breau, who grew up in Auburn, is the son of country music singer Betty Cody, whose song “I Found Out More Than You Ever Knew,” reached No. 10 on the Billboard country chart in 1953, the year after Breau was born. His father is Harold Breau, a guitarist and vocalist who toured with his wife as Hal Lone Pine.

If Breau found his mom’s pot roast bland, his mother – whose recipe for tourtiere Breau makes to this day – had nothing but good to say about his.

“She loved it. There isn’t anybody that doesn’t. I’ve never had anybody say, ‘This sucks!’ ” Breau says. “She loves the song, too. She was my biggest supporter for sure.”

From left, Press Herald copy editor Charmaine Daniels, Food and Source Editor Peggy Grodinsky, Dave Rowe, Stacey Guth and Gillian Britt gathered to try Denny Breau's pot roast.

From left, Press Herald copy editor Charmaine Daniels, Food and Source Editor Peggy Grodinsky, Dave Rowe, Stacey Guth and Gillian Britt gathered to try Denny Breau’s pot roast.

COMFORT FOOD GUY

Like the recipe, the song evolved. It started out some 10 years ago as a song about “being roasted on pot,” Breau says a little sheepishly, “and then it migrated into what you are hearing.”

A pretty big shift.

“That is a big transition,” he agrees. “I was just going with the flow, with what was happening that day. … But it didn’t get past maybe two or three lines before it turned into the pot roast song.”

In answer to my next question, he says, no, he was not making pot roast when he dreamed up the song. He wasn’t cooking anything. “I was just sitting at the camp (in Peru), looking out at the lake and these lyrics started falling in.”

“Most of my good songs are very spontaneous and spill right out,” he says, then apologizes for sounding boastful. “Pot roast fell right out.”

You can hear that in the song. It’s playful, funny and easygoing, like Breau himself, at least in our short acquaintanceship. My favorite lyric – “so bovine” – turns out to be his, too. It’s what gets the song going, he says, reciting “So bovine. Dinner on a dime. Favorite wine. It lends itself to words that would rhyme that would make sense for the chorus.”

He says he borrowed “bovine” from a Cormac McCarthy song, which he proceeds to sing. ” ‘Cows. Got big brown eyes. Cows. Got tasty thighs. Cows.’ I think he says ‘bovine’ in there somewhere.”

The song “Pot Roast” mostly, but not entirely, mirrors what happens in Breau’s kitchen when he cooks one. It diverges in two respects. First, the song goes like this:

“Keep your turkey.

You can keep your hams.

Cranberry stuffing, candied yams.

For when that next holiday comes rolling around,

For me, baby, it all comes down to pot roast.”

But Breau says he doesn’t actually eat pot roast over the holidays. His family’s Christmas meals are more traditional. “The meat pies (tourtiere). The spiral ham.”

“I wouldn’t be offended to eat a pot roast for Christmas by any stretch,” he adds.

Then there’s the matter of the Crockpot. The lyric says, “We all love the kids and the wife, but it’s that Crockpot that’s calling me home tonight.”

In fact, Breau makes pot roast in a Dutch oven, getting it started on the stovetop with a good hot sear, finishing up in the oven with a long, slow braise.

“I hardly ever use it, but I own one,” Breau says of the Crockpot. “Once in a while we’ll bust it out to cook something or other.”

With the song, he took a little poetic license. “I couldn’t say it’s the oven calling me home tonight,” he says. “Or the Dutch oven. It doesn’t have the same …” He stops mid-sentence. Crockpot, he goes on, “is much more poetic. It rolls off the tongue much more. It just sounds better.”

Breau is not a prolific songwriter. He thinks he’s written 150 to 200 songs, all told. “Most songwriters have thousands,” he says. “Some guys can go to Nashville, and they can pump out song after song after song all day long. With me, it’s maybe one or two or three a year pop out. And that’s it. And if I force it, it doesn’t sound good.”

He amends himself. “It may sound good, but it’s not pleasing to my sense of ‘What are you trying to say? What are you trying to convey?’ ”

Does he plan to write another food song?

“No. This is the only one. This is the only one!” Breau repeats himself and laughs. Laughs long and loudly. “Isn’t that enough?!”

His more recent songs are more reflective, he says, and if he’s learned one thing over decades of songwriting, it’s that simplicity works best.

“Don’t make the lyrics too thought-provoking,” he cautions. “Don’t make the chords so hard that nobody can play them or hear what’s going on. Just say what you got to say.”

The same line of thinking applies to what he likes to cook and eat. Breau describes himself as a “comfort-food kind of guy.” He likes shepherd’s pie, hamburg pie, hot dogs, fried haddock, fried scallops, a baked dish he ran into once in Vinalhaven called red top that involves layers of mashed potatoes, ground meat and corn, all topped off with a can of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup.

“The meals that make me the happiest are the meals that my mom used to make me when I was a kid,” he says. “For instance, when I make American chop suey, let’s say. It brings me back to a wintry day when I’m 8 or 9 years old. The wind is howling, and we’re out sliding, having a ball. Just not a care in the world. You walk into the house and the smell of that cooking is like ‘Oh man!’

“Now when I prepare those kinds of dishes, those memories all flood back. Just like when you hear a certain song.”

Denny Breu's finished pot roast on a platter, awaiting a hungry diner.

Denny Breu’s finished pot roast on a platter, awaiting a hungry diner.

TOP OF THE CHARTS

The pot roast is coming along nicely, but the clock is ticking. Breau flips the roast, and returns it to the oven. While it finishes up, he puts together the cole slaw and the mashed potatoes.

He is in an unfamiliar kitchen, but that doesn’t faze him. He pauses to make goo-goo eyes at my cat, who is sitting on top of the refrigerator watching the proceedings with interest. He snacks on the cabbage hearts and insists I try one, too. “The best part of the cabbage,” he says. I wonder if he likes the crunch, which has a fine musical sound.

The guests trickle in – musician Dave Rowe and his girlfriend and “social media guru” Stacey Guth, Portland-area publicist Gillian Britt and Portland Press Herald copy editor Charmaine Daniels. Breau is an acquaintance of a few hours; Rowe and Guth are strangers to me. Britt and Daniels know only me.

We’re a motley crew, united solely by the fact that our schedules allow us to dine in the warm belly of a winter’s Tuesday afternoon.

By meal’s end, we are also united by pot roast. “So sublime,” according to the song. Not only that, it has the power to pry open belt buckles, loosen tongues and warm hearts.

The conversation meanders from Donald Trump to the history of spiced meat to an electronic keyboard that shut itself off to great hilarity in the middle of a recent performance.

Breau and Rowe – another avid cook – tell us how they used to trade recipes when driving from gig to gig on tour. Rowe theorizes that all chefs are frustrated musicians and all musicians are frustrated chefs.

There is a lot of pot roast – this particular rendition has soared to “the top of the pot roast charts,” Daniels declares – and a lot of laughter. We’re not friends yet, but we think we could be.

Daniels starts talking about the tourtiere she noticed recently at the concession stand at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Have you tasted tourtiere, asks Rowe, who grew up in Auburn. “It’s the most delicious thing ever.”

“Really?” Daniels says.

“For me it is,” Rowe says.

“Except,” Breau says definitively, “for pot roast.”

DENNY BREAU’S POT ROAST, THE RECIPE

Breau doesn’t follow a recipe. It’s all in his head, so, like his cooking, this recipe is relaxed and casual, the measurements a bit of a guess. Adjust it depending on the size of your pot roast. We made a 5-pound roast for 6 people and had plenty of leftovers.

1 to 2 yellow onions
2 cloves garlic
10 ounces white button mushrooms
5-pound chuck roast
Generous handful flour
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 quart beef broth
3/4 to 1 cup cheap red wine
1 envelope Lipton Onion Soup
Pepper
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Kitchen Bouquet

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Chop the onions and the garlic roughly. No need to be fussy because “after 3 hours at 350, they are pretty much history,” Denny Breau said. “You can cut them anyway you want.” Slice the mushrooms thickly and set all the vegetables aside.
Shake the pot roast in a bag with flour.

Heat the olive oil and the butter in a Dutch oven. When it’s very hot and the butter is melted, add the roast and sear it on all sides. Getting a good sear is key to a good pot roast, Breau said.

Pour in the beef broth – Breau likes no-salt, no-fat broth – and the red wine. Stir in the soup mix, and grind in black pepper. “Lots of pepper,” Breau said. “We add copious amounts of pepper. You just can’t get enough pepper.” Add the apple cider vinegar, a natural meat tenderizer, Breau said.

Place the onions and garlic on top of the meat, so their juices run down the meat as it cooks.

Once the liquid in the pot boils, cover the pot and put it in the oven. Cook about 11/2 hours, then flip the meat and stir the onions that were sitting on top of it into the liquid. Cook another 11/2 hours or so, adding the mushrooms about 30 to 45 minutes before you are done, “depending on how al dente you want them.”

When the meat is done, move the pot roast to a platter to rest with a little tin foil over it to keep it warm.
Start on the gravy. If the meat juices are greasy, defat them. Next, stir up the stuff at the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon.

“What people don’t do when they make pot roast is they don’t scrape the sides when they are done to get all of that crunchy stuff into that juice,” Breau says, vigorously scraping the bottom and sides of the Dutch oven. “That’s where all the flavor is.”

Amp up the color of the gravy with “just a touch” of Kitchen Bouquet. “Some people use a little bit of coffee to do that,” Breau said.

Now make a slurry from the cornstarch and a little water. It should be thick, but not so thick it would hold a spoon upright.

Add the slurry to the meat juices. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring all the while, then immediately drop the heat to medium and cook a few minutes until the gravy thickens. After the pot roast has had a chance to rest, slice it and serve with the mushroom gravy.

LEFTOVERS? Lucky you. Here are two ways to use them. Breau combines the leftover mashed potatoes, gravy and a bit of chopped meat for a hash. He forms the mixture into patties, crisps them up in a frying pan, and serves an egg on the side. “Yum. Yum. Yum,” he said.

Or, as Breau sings in “Pot Roast”: “And if you’ve got anything left, you make a fricassee.” Which is pretty much what musician Dave Rowe suggested: Cook up carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes and pearl onions and add the vegetables to the leftover gravy. Thin the mixture with Guinness beer and add cut-up leftover pot roast. “You get a second dinner,” Rowe said. “That’s a stew waiting to happen.”

 


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