Passover has a way of announcing itself, with the same showiness that forsythia and magnolia bring to the April landscape. Most years, supermarkets are decked out in extensive Seder provisions. Unwieldy cases of matzoh, too big for a shopping cart and impossible to tuck under your arm commandeer end cap displays. Canisters of macaroons in curious flavors jostle each other for shelf space. Slim blue boxes of matzoh ball soup mix squeeze in alongside jars of gefilte fish. This year, I climbed a step ladder to get a clear look at what was hiding on the top shelf of my pantry. Behind the oversized box of kosher salt, I uncovered a wealth of Passover fixings. Some of them were recent purchases, others less so. A fresh box of Streit’s matzoh meal and an unopened box of matzoh from 2019 seemed perfectly harmless. Two partial bags of coconut, one from Baker’s, the other from Bob’s Red Mill, would have to satisfy any macaroon hankerings. Accustomed to baking 1,000 macaroons in a commercial kitchen, I liked the idea of baking a mere dozen. This pantry windfall proved fortuitous because in our current climate, the supermarket is to be avoided like the plague.
My father’s delivery of the Passover story was succinct, a result of the endless, boring Seders he endured as a child. It was also an abbreviated version of the detailed Haggadah because he believed hot food should be served hot. “Why are we gathered here this evening?” he asked, glancing around the table at the expectant and hungry faces. “We are here to remember, to retell a story that was told by my father, and my father’s father, and so forth… for generations. It is the retelling of a story that celebrates freedom from oppression.”
At the conclusion of the four questions, my father set down the Haggadah and reemphasized that Passover was, in a nutshell, all about family and the passing on of traditions from one generation to the next. He also made it very clear that although the Haggadah allowed reclining, he did not allow elbows on the table.
Passover 2020 tells a slightly different story, one that will be told to future generations, about a time when faced with truly dire circumstances, we were forced to hunker down at home. The irony of this Passover is that for the first time in eons, I had nothing but time to prepare a Seder. What made this night different from all other Passover nights was that the table required only two place settings and room for a laptop computer.
Second only to Thanksgiving, Passover was the holiday that always required adding all of the extensions to the dining room table, plus a table that inched its way into the living room. The menu was traditionally staid, virtually unchanged year after year, and greeted with joyful expectation. It was an elaborate meal of many courses, all prepared with great care by three women; my grandmother, my mother, and Jessie.
The sounds of Passover in the making were predictable and comforting. What I remember most distinctly was the repetitive spinning of the Sunbeam mixer, beating what looked like dozens of eggs and extra-fine sugar into a gossamer sponge cake. We weren’t allowed to jump or slam a door because there was a sponge cake in the oven. When the sponge cake had risen dramatically over the top of the tube pan and was cooling on a rack, the oven was cranked up to high to accommodate an over-sized, matzoh-stuffed bird. The door of the oven creaked incessantly when it was opened and closed, the oven racks groaning under the weight of the roasting pan. On top of the stove, a cavernous pot of chicken soup simmered, sparking debate over matzoh balls, dense (my father’s preference) or light (my mother’s preference). There was never enough room in the refrigerator for the tub of chicken soup, necessitating a constant reconfiguration of dairy and produce. The fragrance of Passover was distinctive, teetering on aggressive. Sautéed onions and celery wafted through the kitchen door, snaking down hallways, climbing stairs. Homemade gefilte fish was an enormous undertaking, requiring mountains of finely grated onions and freshly grated horseradish. Depending upon where you stood in the kitchen, your eyes streamed or your nostrils flared, or your throat tickled, or all three. It was glorious, all of it; the chatter, the cooking, the elbow-to-elbow togetherness.
Beyond the kitchen you could hear the clatter of the ‘good’ dishes and the jangle of sterling silver muffled against a freshly pressed tablecloth. The pristine damask never stood a chance against the menu. Classic charoset piled high in my grandmother’s cut-glass bowl couldn’t contain itself. Toppling off squares of matzoh, it left an indelible trail of cinnamon-spiced apples, walnuts, and Welch’s concord grape juice at each place setting. As the meal continued, there was the inevitable glass of wine or grape juice mishap, made worse by trying to abate the flood with a monogrammed napkin.
Passover occasionally fell on my dad’s birthday, necessitating a menu change. The sponge cake was replaced by a Kiss Torte, a behemoth meringue baked in an ancient springform pan. The Kiss Torte required hours of oven time, first at a low heat, (what my grandmother referred to as a ‘slow’ oven) then with the oven turned off to set the meringue. Split and filled with whipped cream, strawberries, and bananas, it was the most dramatic and eagerly anticipated part of the meal.
One of the great joys of the flourless holiday took place days after the Seder leftovers were exhausted. Filling the West-Bend electric fryer with Crisco and hoisting a heavy cast iron skillet from beneath the oven, Jessie orchestrated our favorite meal. Creating an assembly line of dishes in graduated sizes, Jessie filled one with matzoh cake flour and spices, one with beaten eggs, and one with seasoned matzoh meal. Systematically dredging pieces of chicken in eggs and matzoh, most of the chicken fit comfortably in the electric fryer. The overflow monopolized the cast iron skillet, rhythmically percolating in oil. Jessie was very particular about not crowding the chicken, giving it plenty of time to cook thoroughly, which felt like an eternity. Transferring the first few pieces to a Farberware pan lined with paper towels drew us into the kitchen like a magnet. Hoping the smallest pieces would go unnoticed, we tried to sneak off with a wing or a second joint, but Jessie saw everything. Advising us to set the table and stop ‘fussin’ with the chicken, we retreated.
Passover 2020 will forever be remembered as the year technology allowed us to gather together, yet separately. In keeping with tradition, I set the table with dishes and silver worthy of a holiday, and spilled the requisite amount of charoset on the tablecloth. Squinting to see the faces assembled across the computer screen, it almost sounded like Passover, save for the absent clatter of knives and forks and soup spoons. No one was eager to tear up the living room hunting for the Afikomen and for the first time in ages, not a single wine glass was accidentally broken. As surreal as it was on many levels, there was one aspect of the holiday that my parents would have loved; none of the Seder-goers had to drive home in the dark, because everyone was already home.
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