Not having a Seder to go to this year, I'm throwing my own again, for the first time since I left San Francisco. So today I'm frantically trying to unearth my Seder plate and handwritten Hagaddah (both mysteriously AWOL) as well as hitting the Streit's factory on the Lower East Side for matzoh fresh off the conveyor belt. Recipes to follow, but for now, a reprint of an old Bay Guardian column about Passover. Enjoy!
Ride a bike instead of going to Hebrew school, eat bacon, have a Christmas tree: when I was younger, being Jewish was all about restriction, rule after rule about what you couldn't do. Most difficult of all was Passover: first, the two Seders, during which my sisters and I covertly thumbed ahead in our Hagaddahs to see how many more pages of Hebrew had to elapse before the "festive meal" could be served; then, the week-long prohibition on bread, cookies, pasta -- anything made with grain or even corn syrup—which meant a week of messy sandwiches, chunks of tuna salad falling out from between two crumbling, uneven slabs of matzoh, along with weird candy like Bartons' Almond Kisses (wads of chocolate taffy studded with nuts) and chocolate-covered matzoh (good) and chocolate-covered jelly rings and coconut-covered marshmallows (revolting). By the third day of Passover, all the Jewish kids were veering away from the matzoh boxes stacked up in a corner of the cafeteria, while the non-Jewish kids piled up their trays with them as if they were some kind of exotic saltine.
And just to complicate things, the family on my mother's side wasn't Jewish, so we always got to celebrate a secular Easter up at my grandmother's, dyeing eggs and hunting for chocolate bunnies all around her house. But while there may be kosher-for-passover Pepsi, there will never be kosher-for-Passover Easter candy. If Easter fell during Passover, as it usually did, our jelly beans and Cadbury's creme eggs were off limits. So we'd take them home, watching the yellow marshmallow Peeps slowly hardening until the eight days were up. Oddly enough, after all that anticipation, I don't remember now what it was like to finally peel back those shimmering bits of foil. Instead, when the sun went down on the last day and Passover was over, I remember how the plainest slice of crusty white Italian bread tasted just like heaven.
Now, some twenty years later, much to my own surprise, certain rituals have seeped back into my life. "Why do you call it rigidity?" writes poet Louise Gluck in one of the last poems in her book The Meadowlands. "Can't you call it a taste for ceremony?" The flip side of restriction is tradition, a sense of continuity that pushes the future up from the deep roots of the past. These days, for me, the holidays on the Jewish calendar inspire both a reaching out and a gathering in, collecting scattered friends into a chosen family grouped around a table, sharing a heritage, a history, and a meal.
Although most traditional Seders have some kind of meat at the center--braised lamb, stuffed breast of veal, brisket, roast chicken--it seems particularly appropriate to celebrate this spring festival with a vegetarian meal. Plus, vegetarian food is every anxious host's best friend, because it's a rare guest who'll take a strong moral stance against asparagus. And anyone with a tiny speck of cooking ability can steam some asparagus and bring it along to save you the trouble. Always, there's a tumbled salad full of herbs and small leaves, the karpas or spring greens that fulfill the promise of the earth's rebirth, the weird but inevitable hard-boiled eggs in salt water (basically horrible, but extremely evocative, since they're never eaten at any other time), followed by matzoh balls bobbing in a dill-and-garlic perfumed vegetable broth. Add enough salt, onion, and garlic to the broth as it cooks, and any deprivation felt by the chicken-soup-inclined will be outweighed by the gratitude of the vegetarians finally allowed to enjoy a matzoh ball in a reasonable facsimile of its true habitat.
Last year's sleeper was a wine-dark, blood-red beet salad. Inspired by a pile of vigorous, beautiful beets at that morning's farmers' market, I bought two bunches, boiled them until they were tender and ready to slip shining out of their dull magenta skins. Then, they were hurriedly pushed them aside until I spied a long-ignored bottle of Lebanese pomegranate molasses in the fridge. Made into a quick dressing with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a fast grating of orange rind and a squeeze of orange juice, the intensely tart syryp (made from boiled-down fresh pomegranate juice) turned out to be the perfect foil for the beets' earthy sweetness. (Mediterranean food expert Joyce Goldstein prefers the Cortas brand, which is imported from Lebanon; I found mine at Haig's, on Clement Street in SF; you can find it in Brooklyn at Sahadi's or any of the other Middle Eastern grocery stores along Atlantic Avenue).
Beside the beets goes a huge bowl of charoseth, the sweet, chunky mix of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and sweet kosher wine. This is the first dish that every kid learns to make in her grandmother's kitchen. By the way, you must use that digusting Concord-grape kosher wine. Nothing else will do, not grape juice, not Baron Herzog cabaret. Two years ago, I went to a Seder where the charoseth--two kinds, both the familar apple-and-walnut mix and a sticky Sephardic one made with dates-- was made by the family's Swedish au pair, and it was still great. (Actually, all the food was made by the au pair, proving that kugel-makers are made, not born).
Last year, a friend called mid-afternoon, just as my pre-dinner jitters--and the stack of dirty bowls in the sink--were rising. I'm having doubts about my kugel, she admitted. I'm sitting shiva for my spongecake, I replied, eyeing the gummy hunks that had hit the table the minute I'd flipped the pan over to cool. It wasn't a conversation I'd ever imagined having, so far from the worn pink Formica of my grandmother's brisket-scented kitchen. But just for a moment, I was back home.