First Seder

Passover_006

 

By
the time we arrived in Palm Harbor Saturday night  and
had our seafood feast (which, as Evan pointed out, could not have been less
kosher), Ronnie had already been cooking for Passover for a full day. She was
expecting 31 guests for Monday night’s Seder and you do not throw together a
dinner for 31 over night, or even over two nights. There was serious work involved.

With
our husbands off for a day of golf, we headed to the bustling kosher butcher in
St. Pete early Sunday morning and then back home to cook. And cook. And
cook. Can’t think when I’ve had more fun
and learned more.

Quick history lesson:  Passover
is the holiday that celebrates the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Eygpt.  They  left for their new life in such a hurry
that they didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise, so they ate unleavened
bread. Today Passover is marked by the clearing of the house (either literally
or symbolically) of all yeasted bread and grain products except matzo (a flat
cracker bread), and by a dinner (Seder) celebrating the Exodus on the first
night (or two nights) of the weeklong holiday. Since no yeasted bread appears on the menu, matzo can make an appearance
at the Seder in several guises — soup dumplings (matzo balls), sweet or savory
puddings (kugels), and desert (matzoh brittle, among others.)

During
the Seder, the story of the Exodus is told in the form of the Haggadah – a
script of readings and responses that narrate the story and the rituals
associated with it. There are different
Haggadahs that include varying perspectives and levels of detail. (There is
even a 30 minute Haggadah for those celebrating in a hurry.) Ronnie and Evan
use one that is more academic than most.  I am ashamed to say that the upshot of our
lengthy discussion about this was a tune I could not get out of my heretical
brain. I was silently singing “In Haggadah da vita, baby” for days. Geez. What a bad guest.

Anyway, before
we arrived, Ronnie had already made the chicken broth for the matzo ball soup,
and boiled innumerable eggs to serve with salt water (to symbolize spring and
rebirth.) So we began by making a
flanken tsimmes. Flanken is a fatty cut
of beef, akin to shortribs, and tsimmes is a sweet mélange of vegetables to
which Ronnie adds beef following the practice of her ex-mother-in-law. Because making the dish is such a production, its name has come to be
synonymous with making a big fuss. Ronnie
describes it all beautifully here, so I won’t add anything to her account
except to say that it was fabulous – that “Aha meat moment” I had been waiting
for. Incredibly succulent, falling-off-the-bone meat, sweetened with honey, sugar, and maple syrup but with all the
natural saltiness of the beef. Wow. A new adventure in braising (that would be,
what IV?) (Just as an aside, if you make Ronnie’s recipe, beware. It serves 30.)

Passover_ii_060

Once
we got the flanken in the oven (which required the peeling of many, many carrots
and sweet potatoes on my part), we worked on the Haroset – a fruit, nut and
wine mixture that is eaten to signify the mortar used to build the
pyramids. We made two kinds – Sephardic
and Ashkenazic – and the
differences, while real, escape me. One
had all kinds of dried fruits in it along with apples and nuts; the other was
mostly apples, nuts, wine and spices. All I know is, between the two, it required the peeling of many, many
apples on my part.

The
tedium of all that peeling was soothing in an odd way. Sitting, peeling,
talking to Ronnie about what we were doing, what it meant to her and her
family, interspersing it all with a little gossip and stories about people we
knew and had known for years — it was an experience new to me, yet strangely
familiar (maybe a quirk of genetic memory?) Around the world and through the ages women have sat together in the
kitchen making tamales, meatballs, matzo balls, eggrolls, or other
labor intensive, time-honored foods. I’d
had a taste of this as a little girl in the kitchen of my Lebanese grandmother,
stuffing grape leaves and making meat pies, but this communal, traditional
female experience hadn’t much come my way as an adult and I loved it.

Midafternoon
we worked on setting the tables (four of them) with beautiful family china, wine
goblets Ronnie and Evan have collected over the years, a variety of
silver. Just setting formal tables for
31 takes hours, leaving us not-that-long to make the matzo balls, our last task
of the day.

Passover_ii_096

How
do you make matzo balls? The prevailing
joke goes “first you catch a matzo,” but really it’s just matzo meal (ground up
matzos), spices, egg, oil and a tiny bit of club soda to keep it all fluffy. (There is an apparent debate in the matzo
ball world about whether matzo balls should be soft and tender inside, or dense
and hockey-puck-like. We were
soft-siders.) The matzo mixture is
rolled into golf-ball sized spheres and poached in water, whereupon they get
bigger and fatter. Then they are set
aside – the next day they would be added to Ronnie’s chicken soup (rich and
delicious and thickened with pureed carrot and parsnip) with egg noodles
(literally egg since no wheat was allowed – just thin egg omelets rolled up and
sliced into “noodles.”) I’d never had
matzo balls before (don’t ask me how I avoided this growing up on Long Island.  I believe  I’ve mentioned before that I am a picky eater?) Anyway, the joke was on me. They were fantastic.

That
pretty well accounted for Sunday. We ate
really excellent pizza for dinner and crashed.

Passover_ii_077

 

Monday
started early. I was in charge of
roasting vegetables, which at last was something I knew how to do.Broccoli and cauliflower, browned but
still slightly crunchy, dressed with a bit of chardonnay vinegar and olive oil,
could be made early in the day and served at room temp, freeing up the oven for
later. New potatoes could be
roasted in chicken fat skimmed from the soup and made ahead as well (and heated
up right before serving.) Thirty odd
plates were garnished with lettuce and roasted carrots, and refrigerated, waiting
for a last minute addition of gefilte fish.

Passover_ii_083


Gefilte fish. The kind we had came out
of jars, specially ordered from the butcher. Ronnie had thought about making her own, but couldn’t come by the fresh
pike and carp that are required for what are essentially fish meatballs – just
ground up fish and spices and (of course) matzo meal. Along with matzo balls, gefilte fish was
something else I had managed to avoid in a childhood full of Jewish
friends. Truthfully, I was sure I would
hate it even as an adult, but I found that, liberally doused with fresh
horseradish (grated at the last minute, by Ronnie, to keep it pungent), it was
really wonderful. Maybe anything is
wonderful with enough horseradish, but I doubt it. This stuff was good.

While
I was fussing with lettuce and plates, Ronnie was roasting fat kosher chickens
(totally different from the non kosher variety, by the way. Kosher chickens aren’t raised much more
humanely than other chickens, but they are essentially brined in processing and
they are juicy and flavorful beyond what eaters of commercial chickens can
imagine.)

Finishing
touches to the tables, gorgeous flowers from Ronnie’s friends. Evan’s mom came bearing desserts — a nut
cake (no flour) for Evan’s birthday (that same day) and matzo brittle (which is
amazingly good – matzo layered with chocolate, caramel and nuts.) As the guests arrived, more desserts did too
– a fruit filled pavlova and more matzo brittle and a really tastyPassover_ii_086
molded Jell-O
salad.

By
6:30 we were sitting down, all 31 of us. Evan had taped a long time line on the wall, and he spent a few minutes
putting the Exodus into historical context before beginning the readings. We ate parsley with salt water, to signify
spring, haroset to signify the mortar, horseradish to signify bitter
herbs. With words and song they told the
story of a long ago flight to freedom, and the modern day responsibility to
avoid the chains of our own making. Among the guests was the Cantor from Ronnie’s and Evan’s synagogue and
she sang, along with her two small daughters. Beautiful, beautiful Hebrew words, not a one of which I could
understand.

Celebrating
the holiday of another’s tradition was not unlike listening to those pure,
lovely voices singing in a language so foreign to my own. I could sense and respect the powerful
emotions, experience the community and camaraderie in the room, eat the delicious
food, feel welcomed by all, and still be on the outside, looking in. I am not Jewish, in fact with my Arabic
roots, I suppose some would say I am really, really not Jewish. But for this one lovely day, I truly wished I
were.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Lydia says:

    As someone who experienced her first seder at age three months, I cannot tell you how lovely it is to see the experience through your eyes (and taste buds!). Thank you for this story.

    Like

  2. Ronnie says:

    This is really a great lesson in food, history and tradition. I am excited to read the comments as they come in and also to share it with all who attended our seder on Monday. Thanks for the tribute, the lasting memories and the gift of your friendship. I am one lucky girl!

    Like

  3. Ev says:

    Your wordsmithing and your ability to absorb all that went on in connection with our favorite holiday is truly impressive.
    why not tell about your mascara running down your face as you took the horseradish out of the food processor: laughing while crying!
    How come such short shrift to Jerry’s great golf round!
    You are wonderful friends.
    Traditionally at the conclusion of the Seder we say “Next year in Jerusalem”
    You can count on Next year in Palm Harbor!

    Like

  4. Deborah Dowd says:

    Great post! I am really enjoying seeing the Passover traditions out in the blogosphere. Though our family is Catholic, I really appreciate others who make their faith integral to their lives and their food!

    Like

  5. Jerry says:

    This was my first Seder too; but growing up Catholic and in Southern California, I had little idea what to expect. Matzo balls and gefilte fish always seemed more like an ethnic curse my few Jewish friends had to endure than what I found they really are: very good eating and especially as part of a wonderful and rich tradition that connects family and friends. It was wonderful to be included.

    Like

  6. Robyn M. says:

    I have never participated in a Seder, and so I’m grateful to see your posting. A fascinating religious tradition, and a fascinating food history as well!

    Like

  7. Nancy says:

    How I wish I could write! What a wonderful description of Ronnies Seder and the pictures are fantastic.
    It was beautiful evening.
    Thank you.

    Like

  8. Rhoda says:

    It was great fun to watch you and Ronnie cook and a pleasure to have you and Jerry participate in the Seder.

    Like

  9. Rebecca says:

    What a wonderful post; I love the way you weave the history and cultural bits in with the personal story. And everyone is making this matzoh brittle – I have got to try it next year when I can get matzoh again (unless I see some on a sale table this year!) It looks so good.

    Like

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