As the sun goes down this evening, the Seder plates will be assembled with bitter herbs, haroset and other symbolic foods. The Jewish holiday, Passover, will then get underway with the first Seder, or Passover meal.
This is among the most generous of Jewish holiday repasts. It is conducted as a service, with prayer and narrations, the passing of the symbolic foods, a lavish meal, traditional songs and sometimes games before the service ends.
I was introduced to Passover, and Seder meals, the first year I was married. My father-in-law and mother-in-law, Simon and Marjorie Miron, had two Seders every Passover — the first at their home in Lake Jackson, for the family. On the second night of Passover, they’d join with others of their faith in the area and have a community Seder.
Both of them are gone, now. When we attend a Seder, it is a little bittersweet — a celebration, but also a way of remembering David’s kind parents and the Passover meals we shared.
While Seder meals are part of the religious observance, they are not meant to be solemn, but rather a joyful celebration of the Jews’ historic flight from Egypt in biblical times. Freed from the Pharaoh, they left the land so quickly they didn’t even have time to let the bread rise. This is why the holiday is also called “The Festival of Unleavened Bread.” The cracker-like flatbread, matzo is the symbol of this holiday.
Before Passover, or Pesach, finally begins, the observant will have their meals planned and kitchens cleared of all leavened products.
Wine is traditionally consumed as part of the service. At my in-laws’ home, this was unabashedly enjoyed. The mood would become more festive as every glass was poured — as it was meant to be.
Menus for the meals, though, while usually having matzo ball soup, the traditional haroset and gefilte fish, for instance, can differ from family to family with recipes passed down for generations.
My mother-in-law always served chicken baked on a bed of sliced onions, doused with lots of paprika, a pinch of ginger, garlic powder, salt and pepper. In later years, when her doctor told her to cut down on salt, she used Mrs. Dash instead of salt. When he told her to cut back on fat, she took the chicken skin off before baking. Any way she made it, it was always very good.
Her matzo ball soup was delicious. She’d spend two days on the broth. She’d cook two kosher hens in chicken broth until they were falling apart, then, strain the broth and discard the meat. Then, she’d put two more chickens in that broth and cook them until they were very tender. That chicken would be used for sandwiches and more for days to come. The ultra-rich broth would be used for simmering the fat, tender matzo balls.
She also made her own gefilte fish by purchasing three kinds of fresh white fish at the supermarket, trimming and grinding them in a hand grinder. As she got older, she’d look for good, frozen gefilte fish in the kosher markets in Houston. One year I made the gefilte fish out of fresh salmon and chives, and we had lovely, pink salmon gefilte fish.
Making desserts with no leavening, rather than limiting the Jewish cooks, seems to only inspired them to heights of creativity. John Griffin shares a flourless cake recipe, a rich, delectable treat.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to go to a Jewish Seder, and are invited, just remember it is first and foremost, a religious observation. But it is lavish, joyous and fun, and an invitation worth accepting.