Passover: Nostalgia and Tradition
I can hear Zero Mostel singing on The Fiddler on the Roof album, my dad played it often on his Heathkit tuner and 33 1/3 turntable. Tradition is the essence of Passover and Passover is all about the Seder, the feast usually held on the first two nights of the eight day celebration. Every Jewish family celebrates the Seder meal with their own food traditions stemming from the family’s geographical or regional background. Ashkenazi and Sephardic differ in which foods are and are not allowed during the eight day holiday. My tradition excluded rice, legumes, beans, and many grains. At the Passover Seder, every family member has a role. The eldest hides the matzoh for the kids to look for and claim a prize, and the youngest reads the four questions. I have come to cherish that consistency, that knowledge of what the meal would be, that Haggadah would be read every year, that tradition.
Passover is the ultimate food holiday, beginning with the centerpiece. The table centerpiece is the symbolic Seder plate which tells the story of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt through food and wine. Herbs, egg, spring lamb bone, the unleavened bread matzoh, and typically five glasses of wine are meaningfully consumed throughout the seder. My family always started the celebration with pickled herring and chopped liver, served with matzoh crackers, celery and carrot sticks, and drinks. (Any other night, this could be a meal in and of itself.) Then we were seated and the real meal began.
Our holiday menus were almost the same year after year. It could be considered boring or predictable, but it was the most highly anticipated family gathering. Probably because Edith, my mother (and before her, Esther, my grandmother) made gefilte fish. The only time of year it was made! Gefilte fish was always the first course and the much awaited highlight. Edith’s was famous and not just the recipe, it was also about her making it. For many years, while I had the Ridgefield Food Company, my mom would make it in my shop for me to sell. One year she stayed in Florida, my clients said that Passover wasn’t the same. The next year, they all asked if Edith herself was making the fish.
I’ve been a good student all these years, but my mom’s is still the best. After my grandmother passed away, my mom used Jenny Grossinger’s recipe from The Art of Jewish Cooking. Ms. Grossinger’s voice on the page could be your grandmother’s and often the recipes are imprecise, but it’s still charming, soulful, 1950’s comfort.
This is my family’s adaptation of Jenny Grossinger’s recipe for gefilte fish.
2 pounds whitefish
2 pounds pike
2 pounds winter carp
2 quarts water
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons white pepper
3/4 cup ice water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup matzoh meal
3 carrots, diagonally sliced
Have the fish filleted, but reserve the head, skin and bones for the cooking liquid. I usually use more whitefish and less carp, but any freshwater fish combination will work. Always choose the freshest fish, closest to the source.
Combine head, skin, bones, 4 sliced onions, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1 quart water. Cook over high heat while preparing the fish
Grind the fish and remaining onion.
Place in a wooden chopping bowl and add the eggs, water, sugar, matzoh meal, and remaining salt & pepper
Chop until very fine, this is very important for fluffy fish.
With moist hands, shape the mixture into ovals or footballs. Very gently drop them into the fish stock. Add the carrots.
Cover loosely and cook over low heat, 1 1/2 hours. Remove the cover for the last half hour.
Cool, before removing from the pot, then cool, refrigerated until served.
Serve with lots of horseradish.
See steps above in the image slideshow.
Our meal continued with the usual suspects of matzoh ball soup, roast chicken, pot roast, potato kugel, and Nana Esther’s walnut cake. The walnut cake has never quite been duplicated. I’ve tried for years. I’ve come close, but all the cousins agree, not quite Nana’s. I will continue to try and maybe I’ll have it mastered by next Passover.
Another tradition preserved.
What are your family’s Passover traditions?
Photo Credit: Nancy Meyer
Chris Regan and Ashley Mayne produce a wide array of delicious greens for the Hudson Valley.
With his new book, Forrest Pritchard tells the stories of 18 farms from all across America.
Forrest Pritchard and Smith Meadows are prime examples of sustainable family farming.
Jonathan Waxman shares his food philosophy with Slow Films.
A group of star chefs play with fire for a good cause.