This wanderer has finally come home. After nearly 25 years of being a guest at Passover dinners across the country, I’m doing the cooking.
I’ve at last accumulated all the necessary elements: the house, the table, the recipes and the position as my tiny family’s matriarch, but not the confidence that comes with years of experience. My family long ago abandoned Passover’s rituals, which freed me to explore it everywhere else. I was the guest who fulfilled the holiday’s custom to invite the poor or the homeless.
As a displaced student and journalist, I joined the tables of college roommates, co-workers and friendly temple yentas with unmarried sons. Grateful for the hospitality, I collected recipes from my hosts, with hope that, someday, I’d recreate the experiences I’d gathered.
Now it’s time. The weeklong holiday of Passover, which begins next Wednesday at sundown, presents an opportunity to eat vast amounts of traditional comfort foods and drink at least four glasses of wine, all while celebrating the blessings of spring and our ancestors’ triumph over oppression. Cabinets and menus are cleaned of chometz, that is, anything containing leavening.
Sweeping crumbs is, pardon the expression, a piece of cake compared to the whammy of finding my recipe collection. Something like 20 moves in 20 years in five states overwhelmed any attempt at organization.
They landed as haphazardly as they arrived. Some were dictated over the phone by mothers, faxed by friends, scribbled in pencil by great-great-aunts, presented in entire cookbooks, or downloaded and e-mailed. For verification of long-forgotten techniques (and an excuse to say hello), I called old friends and pleaded for faxes from a 1984 cookbook.
I dug through long-forgotten boxes for my own three-ring binder jammed with yellowed and splattered recipes clipped from newspapers and begged from ancient cooks who barely remembered their names, much less mine.
The bits and pieces of paper -- hole-punched and pasted in the “ethnic” section -- formed a random chronicle of my many encounters with Jewish cooks.
Collecting recipes is one thing, choosing and deciphering them is another. A binder of my mother’s best recipes offered her classic tzimmes, chopped liver, herring and more. A confident cook like my paternal great-grandmother, my mother often skipped specifics. Directions? “Cook till done.” My great-grandmothers’ tattered cookbooks from the early 1900s, written with pen and ink, left me wondering how big, exactly, is a goose egg-sized matzo ball.
Worse, which version of perfect matzo balls shall I feature? The olive oil- and garlic-flavored puffs from Robin’s cousin in Dallas? Or the ones boiled in broth and frozen from L.A.? Should I slightly sugar the chopped liver, like Bubbe in Oklahoma City, or smooth it with margarine and gelatin like Anna in Indiana? Her French mother made it more as a pate.
Don’t get me started on the kugel variations -- my apple cinnamon, my mother’s cherry and pineapple, the Cohen’s onion and schmaltz or the potato carrot from Temple Israel in Gary, Ind., where I met the Rothenbergs and other lifelong friends. Maybe all four.
Andrea, a cat-rescuing Chicagoan also exiled to Texas, couldn’t recall how -- or if -- we made her fish koklaten vegetarian for our New Age, feminist Seder/ birthday party years ago in Dallas, so I’ll have to figure out how to make a passable vegan meal for two of my guests.
I’d make that wiggly strawberry gelatin mold I brought to Pasadena 10 years ago, but somehow, it’s forever linked with the memory of sportswriter Phil Rosenthal describing his gallbladder operation. Dessert must include my dentist cousin’s no-fail apricot bars.
This first-time Seder should be traditional and modern; healthy and indulgent; and delicious, as well as geographically diverse.
In other words, I’m using the same recipe selection method common to Jewish mothers: I’m cooking everybody’s favorite dishes, but none of them made the final cut without also being my best-loved.
It’s tricky making this meal well. The Jewish calendar and the lengthy ceremony are at odds with fine dining. Often falling in the middle of the week, Passover’s timing forces many working women to freeze the meal ahead of time. The food gets reheated to a crumbly dryness as the ceremony crawls along.
Maybe it’s a Jewish fear of eating anything undercooked, the absence of flour or the presence of so much egg and oil, but many of Passover’s adapted recipes are so indigestible, they’ve become the cuisine of suffering. Perhaps to offset the effects of matzo -- “the bread of affliction” -- fruit compote has become a mandatory feature.
It’s a time for absolutes. Everyone’s mother’s kugel is their favorite. No one can really make matzo balls light enough. Chicken soup is becoming a lost art. You’re a genius, or insane, if you make your own gefilte fish.
Passover is a time of special significance for Jews, often because the holiday themes and its food are bittersweet. The pungent horseradish, the sweet fruits and the salty soup help illustrate the melancholy story of suffering and exodus into the Promised Land. And at the tables of the noisy, happy families I visited, I collected more than recipes.
I collected history, a refined Jewish identity, and a new way of appreciating it all. The food of my many Passovers isn’t gourmet but Eastern European peasant grub, lovingly prepared and generously offered.
It seems a shame to limit my experience, and now my son’s, to that of just my own table. Next week, we’ve been invited to Venice for a children’s Seder on the first night of Passover. We’re recreating the 10 plagues in food, or toys, or something creative. I’m still cooking our own family Seder on the second night, but I just can’t pass up that first-night invitation.
It’s still too much fun being a vagabond.