Every spring Passover appears on the calendar. It’s a huge event that tests every Jewish homemaker because it’s the one Jewish holiday that is celebrated in the home. It’s observed for seven days and during that week only unleavened bread or matzah is eaten, and on the first two nights of the holiday, a ritual meal, or Seder, is held. The Seder, which means “order,” is organized by the Haggadah, a book that includes all the blessings over the rituals such as lighting the candles and hand washing, and about a hundred other prayers including the commanded telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom is the theme of the night and is explored in many ways.
Preparing for the Seder often rested on my mother’s shoulders. This can mean a slow-moving nightmare for a woman who has little interest in the kitchen. My mother had maybe three domestic bones in her body and treated the kitchen more like the gallows than a site of nourishment. She was a gleeful woman who’d bring home a bushel basket full of corn, or two loaves of warm challah and call that dinner. Still, she had to contribute to the Seder meal.
I loved cooking with her on Passover because it meant we’d spend the day together. There was a reckless joyousness about having so much food around. For me it was fun, for her it was frantic.
In our family the cooking was split between my mother’s sister and brother and their families. This was a blessing because a traditional meal included chicken soup served with matzah balls, gefilte fish and horseradish, then a meat course of brisket or roast chicken (or the dreaded dry turkey), tzimmes, fruit compote, with macaroons and angel cake for dessert. A feast.
My mother usually made three dishes: fruit compote, tzimmes and roast beef.We had two workstations: the short-tiled counter and the kitchen table. I knelt on a kitchen chair because I wasn’t tall enough to stand at the table and work. She manned the counter. We’d confer on every detail. I was so happy to be with her, and free to nibble on the dried fruit; we rarely had sweets in our home.
My favorite of the dishes was the fruit compote—it cooked up clear and glossy with colorful pieces of fruit suspended in syrup. My job was to cut up the fruit. Still my mother would lock her dark brown eyes on mine until I melted into my t-shirt. “Be careful. Pay attention to what you’re doing,” she’d say before letting me touch the scissors.
I’d nod, acknowledging the seriousness of the transaction, but really I couldn’t wait to dump the bags of fruit onto the table creating a puzzle of brown dates, orange apricot, tawny pears and golden peaches. Candyland!
Once the compote was on the stove, we’d move onto the tzimmes. Tzimmes is basically a meat and root vegetable stew made of sweet and white potatoes, carrots, prunes, beef, onions, with orange juice, honey and water. The recipe is more a framework than a vetted plan which each family makes according to their taste and tradition. Due to my mother’s well-known history of burning food, she cooked hers on top of the stove. She was too distracted to leave it to the mercies of the oven.
For all her worries, my mother had one dish that reliably turned out well: her roast beef. I don’t know how it happened. She’d just plunk a shoulder roast on top of a bed of quartered yellow onions without browning it or rolling it in flour. Then she’d douse the beef with garlic salt and a packet of Lipton’s Dry Onion Soup, pour a cup or two of water into the bottom of the roasting pan, cover the beef with aluminum foil and slide it into the oven. She baked everything at 350 degrees. Yet it came out with crispy edges for those who liked well-done beef, and pink centered slices for everyone else. The whole table cheered my mother’s roast. I’d cheer too, relieved her efforts had a happy ending.
Each year we observe Passover. As soon as the crocuses are blooming, I’m hyped for matzah. My husband celebrates the Jewish holidays even though he wasn’t raised Jewish. He’s also a fantastic cook and lifts some of the burden off my shoulders.
Since we live far from family, we gather for Seder with our friends. I confess we don’t set the table with a linen cloth and fine china like my mother. We use the Fiestaware so the kids don’t freak out about dropping a plate and breaking it.
Just as the tradition of Passover was passed onto me by helping my mother in the kitchen, I feel it’s important for our kids to be involved in readying the table for the Seder. They help set the table and also lend a hand with setting up the ritual foods needed for the service. They wash the parsley, boil the eggs, fill bowls with salt and water (the tears of Affliction), and find the shank bone hidden in the freezer. And, they read through the Four Questions so when that section comes in the service, they are ready to chant the questions.
Our menu kicks off in a traditional vein with chicken soup and matzah balls (which are pretty tricky to make), which my children love. Then we have gefilte fish with horseradish, a more acquired taste. Our main course might be chicken or I’ll make my mother’s roast along with something hearty for the vegetarians. We also have a green vegetable like asparagus or broccoli.
My mother’s family loved Tzimmes; sometimes I make it in honor of her, and sometimes we just eat baked sweet potatoes and roasted white potatoes instead. Even though I loved it as a child, I usually skip my mother’s fruit compote, putting out fresh fruit like grapes and tangerines along with small bowls filled with raisins and walnuts. In general we eat less sugar than my parent’s generation, and also have fewer hours to shop, clean and cook.
But food nourishes the tradition. I’m grateful my parents instilled a love of Passover in me which I hope my children have inherited. My husband’s great cooking skills means I don’t have to fret about what I cook, though I care about making light, tasty matzah balls. But other than that, I’m so happy to finally be able to sit down after all the hullabaloo and join our kids and friends and start the Seder. It feels big and beautiful knowing that Jews around the globe are participating in Seders and just like us they’re with their families reading the Haggadah, repeating the same blessings, the same story of the Exodus, eating the same ritual foods, and trying to understand what freedom means.