Sunday, April 24, 2005

Seahorses and Gefilte Fish

Perhaps if Tasmania had been a normal place where you had a proper job, spent hours in traffic in order to spend more hours in a normal crush of anxieties waiting to return to a normal confinement, and where no-one ever dreamt what it was like to be a seahorse, abnormal things like becoming a fish wouldn’t happen to you.
I say perhaps , but frankly I am not sure.

-Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish

And speaking of fish, it's that gefilte-fish time of year again. Happy Pesach! Got a call from my old friend Molly McKay on Saturday afternoon, asking for help with Seder recipes. Molly has been coming to my crowded studio-apartment Seders for years. Although I'm on the other side of the country these days, she's gotten into the Seder habit now, so this week she's hosting her own, with Supervisor Mark Leno and half a dozen other Bay Area political/activist hotshots in attendance. But first, Molly needed to know: did the horseradish go directly into the charoseth? Yikes! This is why long-distance phone service is a good thing. So I quickly explained that no, you eat the horseradish with the charoseth for the "Hillel sandwich," but you don't mix it in. I also explained the importance of using that nasty sweet kosher concord-grape wine for the charoseth; nice Baron Herzog cabernet WILL NOT DO. Trust me, I've tried, and it just doesn't taste right.

Passover food is, for me, some of the most intensely nostalgic, because it's strictly a once-a-year experience. Gefilte fish, matzoh balls, charoseth, even matzoh itself--I'm instantly back at my grandparents' table, with my grandfather Leo at the head of the table, leaning on a pillow, and my round little grandmother Fae dishing up the chicken soup and brisket.

Once I was on my own, I dropped all the Jewish observance I'd been brought up with for quite a while. I was free, I was in California, I was twenty-two and out and thrilled to be far, far away from the constraints of suburban New Jersey. Judaism meant Hebrew school and sitting outside the temple during the all-day Yom Kippur services making up songs about food (since it's a day of fasting) and not being able to eat the Easter candy we'd get from my other, non-Jewish grandmother when Easter fell during the 8 days of Passover, as it usually did (since the Last Supper was actually a Seder). Since there's (obviously) no such thing as kosher-for-passover Easter candy, we'd spend a a rambunctious day at Gussie's hunting for Easter eggs and Easter candy only to then tote our baskets home, where all the sparkly metallic foil-wrapped bunnies would have to sit there on our dressers, day after day, the Peeps hardening and the plastic grass falling onto the carpet. Temptation--for an 8 year old, that's Eve's apple right there, in the shape of a solid milk-chocolate bunny.

But then somewhere in the mid-90s, much to my surprise, the rituals and the sense of community and family and roots started tugging at me. I didn't go back to temple much, but I did start cooking. First it was a few people for a Rosh Hashanah dinner, with homemade round challah and apples and honey for dipping. A few months later, it was latkes and borscht for Chanukah. And then I got a Hagaddah out of the library, xeroxed half a dozen copies, and had my first on-my-own Seder.

Over the years, the guest list expanded, always including last-minute friends of roommates of friends, whether they were Jewish or not. Passover is like Jewish Thanksgiving; as long as you can possibly squeeze in one more chair, you have to open your door. There's even an injunction to this effect in the Haggadah--"Let all who are hungry come and eat." Traditionally, an extra plate is always laid, and it's a mitzvah (a good deed) to welcome a stranger to your table. Friends became family, coming together for the holidays year after year. One spring, the mystery guest was my roommate Steve's long-lost gay cousin and his WASP boyfriend; my best friend from college Paige, who's a kind of honorary Jewish lesbian (even though she's actually straight and goyishe), came pregnant one year and nursing a baby the next.

On one grand occasion, 13 people sat down for dinner in my tiny Valencia Street apartment. Folding chairs filled my closets, as did garage-sale plates, a extra-long tablecloth, and Jackie's aunt's old Seder plate. I ended up writing my own Haggadah too, mixing in elements from several different Haggadot to make one that was inclusive and feminist and meaningful. (Although the story and rituals are always the same, there are hundreds of different ways to do a Seder, and hundreds of Haggadot, from Marxist to lesbian-feminist to super-traditional. The only Seder invitation I've ever bowed out of, though, was Jill's "nude erotic Seder." There, I draw the line.)

Sometimes the Seders were vegetarian, with golden dill-and-garlic-broth matzoh ball soup and a "paschal yam" (instead of lamb) on the Seder plate, plus the famous roasted-beet salad with orange-pomegranate dressing--my never-fail secret conversion weapon against the beet haters. I tried making sponge cake one year; as it cooled upside down (to keep it from compressing), chunks of cake started breaking loose and hitting the counter in clods. My old friend Jen called to tell me she was having doubts about her kugel; I told her I was sitting shiva (the traditional Jewish rite of mourning) for my spongecake. Luckily, lovely Leslie (living up to her email address of "lesliecake") arriving bearing strawberries, whipped cream, and a flourless chocolate cake, which was instantly devoured and immediately became a Seder menu staple.

This year I went back to Mike's parents' palatial apartment on the Upper West Side, where there were twenty guests and an endless parade of kugels and braised chicken with dried apricots and platters of asparagus and bowls of little chocolate-chip meringues. I sat at the kids' end of the vast table, with Mike (my old college boyfriend) and his wife and his Seattle pals Brent and Lisa and their son Gavin, and we all marvelled at how long we'd know each other, happily toasting the spring.

Passover Rolls

I am a huge bread girl, so the loss of morning toast is a big bummer this week. (The big thing you can't have during the eight days of Passover is bread, which expands to include anything leavened or anything made with grain or beans, except for matzoh.) Basically, everything baked during Passover ends up tasting like eggs and matzoh meal. These rolls are no exception, but served hot and well-slathered with jam or apple butter, they do the trick. The technique is similar to making profiteroles.

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2/3 cup matzoh meal
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring water, oil, salt and sugar to a boil in a medium-sized pot. Add matzoh meal and stir over medium heat until dough forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pot. Let cool for five minutes. Beat eggs in one at a time, making sure each one is well-absorbed before adding the next. Drop by egg-sized lumps onto a nonstick or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes, then turn down heat to 350 and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until well-puffed and browned. Serve warm with butter and jam.

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