This is beginning of the question that the youngest asks on Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights.? It is the start of the traditional “Four Questions” the part of the seder that was looked upon with anticipation and sometimes dread by the children at the table. As we enter into our second Pandemic Passover, this phrase, this question is particularly meaningful and relevant. It’s a year since we entered into the Pandemic Phase of our lives and with that has brought about a new way of living, a different way of living.
As many of you know if you have been following my blog, I lost both of my parents – first my dad 16 years ago, and then my mom just 3 years ago. Most of my family lives in Florida, so first off, this night is different because I will not be spending Passover with any family. Many of us who would normally travel or have a large family gathering, will once again be Zooming, HousePartying, GoogleHangingOut or whatever virtual means we chose to try to bring our loved ones into our lives. Things are getting better but still not safe enough for us all to be close. A dear friend of mine who I’ve known since high school came over for a small dinner, as she too has lost both of her parents and her siblings live far away.
I think this is the holiday that I miss my grandparents the most, especially my paternal grandmother — the one whom I write of often. Passover at her house was always something I looked forward to; it was kind of like a Jewish Thanksgiving Dinner (since she never had a Thanksgiving). The long table was laid out with her finest linens, Passover Plates and flatware, the door was left open so that Elijah could come in — or the cooking fumes could get out, and the table was filled with food. Grandpa would sit at the head and read, and read and read, while grandma would yell — Irving, “genug, enough” and of course he’d ignore her and keep going. We’d dip, we’d sing and we’d “essen fressen” — or eat until we were like a stuffed derma. Speaking of stuffed derma, that was one of the many amazing foods she’d have on the table. This is a Jewish style sausage, no pork of course and stuffed with savory matzo meal and paprika spiced stuffing. We’d congregate in her little kitchen because before the meal started, there would be plates of chopped liver with horseradish that she hand-grated with beets. Sweet and spicy, with the rich chicken livers cooked in schmaltz, (Jewish olive oil) I can still taste it. Organized chaos was really how the meal went, grandma with no patience, grandpa continuously reading, the kids getting stir crazy running in the halls, or getting yelled at to stay away from the windows — “You know could fall out…” We’d be shvitzing as if we were in a Turkish steam bath because of the building’s heat and the fact that grandma was too afraid to open the windows because as I said ” You could fall out.” We’d start off with bowls of steaming chicken soup with matzo balls, and her egg noodles — not the kind you find in the store, but more like ribbons of the thinnest egg crepe you could imagine. Next would be plates of her famous gefilte fish. She’d grind the fish by hand, a combination of “winter carp” pike and whitefish. I have a vague recollection of stories of her keeping the carp in the bathtub though I don’t ever remember seeing it there. I know that this is something that was done, there’s even a children’s story book called “The Carp in the Bathtub”. Can you imagine — you go to the bathroom to do your business and find a fish in a bathtub, Oy Vey! Anyway back to the gefilte fish, she boiled not baked hers and it was always served with a carrot round and loads of more horseradish. Then would come out the platters of meat, usually breast of veal stuffed with schmaltz laden matzo meal stuffing and beef ribs, carrot and prune tzimmes and maybe a boiled potato. Wine is a traditional part of the meal and grandma would only want the sweet stuff — Manischewitz. Once we brought a good bottle of wine and she took one sip, spit it out, said it was sour and asked where the Manischewitz was. This is a traditional Galitizianer, Eastern European style Passover meal.
Flash forward to this year’s Passover and from wine to food, to company, it was different. Before Passover night, I along with Les Dames d’Escoffier, presented a fantastic tasting via Zoom, of the Judean Hills Quartet Wines of Israel. Led by my friend Tali Dalbaha, we tasted four of the most amazing wines along with the winemakers — sorry grandma, this is what Passover Wine should taste like! Different, done by Zoom, not in person, but informative and fantastic.
Next was the actual dinner. So different from what I would normally have eaten, this time I wanted to go Sephardic. Whereas the Ashkenazi are of Eastern European dissent, the Sephardim are mostly from the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African regions. The foods couldn’t be more different! The Eastern European cuisine was based on Polish and German style cooking, heavy, heavy and well nothing light. Sephardic cooking combined the cuisines from the Spanish and the North Africans so it is much more aromatic and spice infused. We didn’t do much else very traditional, no reading from the Haggadah, no Seder plate, no dipping to commemorate the plagues, we just ate. But, to keep some tradition alive, I of course started with a traditional matzo ball soup, because it just wouldn’t be Passover without it! When I make mine, I always start with a whole chicken, carrots, a small amount of parsnip so the broth doesn’t get too sweet, a celery stalk and a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf, then I cover the whole thing in chicken stock and water — 2 parts stock to 1 water. To get a nice clear broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a just barely bubbling simmer and skim. The main was a delish recipe by Joan Nathan, and was layers of eggplant covered in caramelized onions and garlic, topped with pieces of browned, chicken coated in allspice, lime powder and tumeric and finally topped with chopped swiss chard. Instead of the traditional tzimmes (sweet carrots and prunes) I made roasted rainbow carrots coated in harissa paste and honey.
Lastly was dessert. Dessert at grandma’s would have been all kinds of sweets from boxes spread all over the table. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the jellied, sugar coated fruit slices that didn’t taste like fruit. There would be chocolate covered jelly rings, or chocolate covered cherries and chocolate covered matzo — don’t knock it until you try it! She’d have an array of Passover cakes which were usually jelly rolls — see a jelly theme here? Nothing home baked so I decided again to break tradition and bake. I found a fantastic recipe for an Orange, Chocolate Flourless cake by Nigella Lawson. What was so interesting about it and different was that you boil the oranges whole until soft and puree them whole with all the rest of the ingredients and bake. Amazingly fragrant, chocolate-orange goodness, you’d never know it doesn’t have flour. I’m sure she didn’t intend it for Passover but it was the perfect cake to end the meal. Oh yeah, wine, forgot wine. As I said no Manishewitz for me thank you, (sorry grandma)! We enjoyed the leftover wines from the Judean Hills Quartet — Sphera Sauvignon Blanc, Castel Rose, Tzora Shoresh Red and Flam Classico.
My Passover night was different from other nights, like my year was different from other years. But isn’t that how it should be? Every day is different, every year is different. We ask ourselves, “Why is this night different from all others?” and the answer is well, because it should be. We need to embrace the new, and not be afraid of the different. Try something new, out of your norm, out of the comfort zone. This past year has taught us that we need to find new ways to forge ahead, to embrace change and not be afraid of following a different path. So Chag Sameach, a Zissen Pesach, Happy Passover embrace your traditions but also don’t be afraid to try something new.