NEW YORK (JTA) — Back in college, an acquaintance of mine had a one-line answer to the intermarriage debate: “If you want to have a Passover seder in your house, marry a Jew,” he said. “Period.”
Though I can’t remember the context of his declaration, it’s a phrase that’s stuck with me through the years. That’s not because I’ve spent much time worrying about intermarriage; it’s because I’ve become a little bit obsessed with Passover.
Or make that my idea of Passover.
Inspired, I think, by that comment, I decided I wanted Passover to be my holiday.
I pictured myself the matriarch of an extended family gathered around my (imaginary) large dining-room table — perhaps in my imaginary country house — enjoying a Passover seder together. Just as people travel a bazillion miles in bad weather to enjoy the cliche of being “home for Christmas,” my family would be home for Pesach.
There was just one problem with my pastoral vision: stuffing. Rather, the lack thereof.
In my family, stuffing is what makes a holiday worth celebrating. (Familial camaraderie? Ha! That’s got nothing on pulverized corn flakes pushed into a turkey carcass.) The family recipe is one my grandmother got from her sister’s mother-in-law. It’s a recipe she’s been making for more than 50 years, she says.
For whatever reason, my mom’s doesn’t taste quite as good — and mine’s even worse. But that’s never stopped me from trying — except on Passover, that is, when stuffing has no place at the seder table. (And don’t suggest I try matzah stuffing. To me, that’s the culinary equivalent of a skirted swimsuit: You’re not fooling anyone.) And though I always go all out for the seder and it’s accompanying foods, without the stuffing the holiday just seems a little empty.
When it comes to Jewish holidays, food isn’t just about sustenance or a sensory experience; it’s about tradition and remembrance. And while many Passover foods take this responsibility literally — like the bitter herbs that represent the bitterness of slavery — without a go-to family recipe, I’m having trouble seizing hold of Passover. Is embracing Passover a matter of finding a really great dish, or is it something more than that?
For answers, I turn to author and Jewish cooking expert Joan Nathan.
“It’s really important to have repetitive foods; we need something repetitive in our world to make memories,” she tells me. “Otherwise, what memories will we have? Of carry-out sushi?”
In the absence of a family tradition, Nathan suggests I start my own.
“As a parent, I think it’s hard to create traditions, but I think it’s so important to create them,” she says.
At her seder Nathan relies on a mix of family staples as well as new recipes. But she reminds me it’s not just about the food — it’s the preparation, too. Every year Nathan hosts a “gefilte fish-in” for her friends prior to the holiday.
“We bring our pots and pans, we bring our fish, we mix the fish, we discuss everything,” she says. “It’s so much fun.”
Of course, many families have Passover traditions that have nothing to do with food. At Nathan’s seder it’s customary for the “kids,” many of whom are grown, to put on a play about the Passover story.
“The kids go upstairs, raid my closet, wear my clothes,” she says. “It’s hysterical.”
And in the Passover chapter of her book “Cooking Jewish” (Workman, 2007), Judy Bart Kancigor says her family’s tradition is to have all the participants date and sign their names in the back page of the Hagaddah they used. It’s fun, she writes, to watch how children’s handwriting has changed over the years.
Both of these scenarios fit well with my fantasy Passover. The problem is, though, that the dinner’s still not quite right. I need something that my (imaginary) grandkids will be raving about 50 years from now. Even the crowd pleaser that is matzah ball soup causes conflict here: I prefer the super-fluffy, cloudlike versions; my husband prefers dense and chewy golf balls.
As I thought about this, I remembered how some good friends have raved, repeatedly, about the apricot chicken that Alice Schweiger, a freelance writer who lives on the Upper West Side, serves at her seder.
“It’s a sure-fire hit,” Schweiger tells me. “Out of the foods that I serve, there’s always something that somebody doesn’t like. This is the one thing that everybody likes.”
Schweiger, a new grandmother with two adult children, says this recipe has been her seder staple for about five years.
“I always say that I’m going to make it during the year," she says. "I never do, so that makes it more special.”
New traditions can start at any time, Kancigor assures me. For years, she says she always cooked brisket — until she obtained a recipe for spicy Moroccan lamb shanks from her ex-sister-in-law.
That’s now her family’s go-to dish, she says.
Not surprisingly, both Nathan and Kancigor advise me to scour cookbooks for a sure-fire recipe of myown. Nathan suggests I look to the season for inspiration with “recipes that are signs of spring.” For her part, Kancigor assures me that tasty matzah stuffing is not an impossibility.
Finding that perfect recipe is a matter of trying, borrowing and reinventing, Kancigor says.
“Most of the foods we serve on Passover is picked up from somewhere else,” she tells me. “The history of our food is the history of our ancestors. As you look at the seder table, it represents our Jewish history. You can see how we’ve traveled through the centuries.”
I now recognize that family food traditions follow that same trajectory: They mirror who we are, where we’ve been and with whom we’ve shared memories.
On Valentine’s Day, for example, my husband and I always make sushi rolls. We’ve happily folded baby Leon into the tradition, who gobbled them up. Thanksgiving is now traditionally held at my house. And every year, my sister’s longtime boyfriend brings his family’s stuffing, a rich concoction made with cornbread, leeks and cheese. I used to think it an extravagant — unnecessary, perhaps — addition to the Thanksgiving spread, but now I look forward to tasting his stuffing almost as much as my grandmother’s.
Aside from an open mind, it doesn’t take much to start a new Passover tradition, I realize. And, just maybe, I’ll give one of Kancigor’s matzah stuffing recipes a try.