In the Suburbs: A Seder away feels just like home
I was a little bummed this past weekend when I suggested a small Seder at the Gaynes homestead just for family and my wife politely but firmly said it wasn’t going to happen this year. Even though I offered to do just about everything, she reminded me she has had way too much pain this winter and, despite physical therapy, she couldn’t possibly stand on her feet for that long.
When our wonderful friend Roberta asked me what we were doing for the holiday, I said we were going to be on our own and a Seder wasn’t in the cards. She called back an hour later and told us we were joining their family for the Seder on Monday evening. Her comment, “No one should be alone on this holiday.”
The evening was wonderful and it was just her daughter Dawn, and son-in-law, Jon, Roberta and her husband, Bob, and us. The Seder table was beautiful and the food was beyond abundant. Between Roberta and Dawn, the buffet counter was overflowing with brisket, turkey, three different kugels (puddings) of broccoli, squash and apple and little roasted potatoes among other delicacies.
For our Haggadah (the traditional Seder prayer book), we used copies of the Maxwell House (coffee) version, which has probably been around since the early ’50s when our family used it. We all had a good laugh as the children and adults struggled with complicated words that made the story of our journey to freedom read like a walk through quicksand.
In the nearly 29 years I’ve been writing this column, I have never missed an opportunity to talk about how deliciously food centric the holiday of Passover is. In addition to Passover being the holiday of freedom and fertility, the foods are symbolic of the traditions that have built the holiday. The Seder plate is an eclectic mix of the shank bone to symbolize the blood the Hebrews smeared on their doorposts to alert the angel of death to pass over and kill only first-born Egyptian sons during the 10th plague. Horseradish symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Charoset, a heavenly concoction of apples, wine, honey, nuts, cinnamon, reminds us of the bricks and mortar used to build pyramids in Egypt. A roasted egg is a symbol of the cycle of life and fertility and parsley is part of the new growth of spring.
When the meal finally is served, the hostess or host always worries that she or he will never have enough to satisfy the guests and those guests look at this once-a-year feast like deer in headlights, wondering just how much of this sumptuous meal their stomachs can tolerate.
Certainly, this year was no exception. I didn’t want to stuff myself, but everything looked amazing. What was particularly special about this Seder meal was the Sephardic influence. Roberta comes from a Sephardic background and many of the delicacies were clearly Sephardic.
Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. The first Sephardim arrived in New York in the mid 1600s and established the first Sephardic synagogue there in 1654.
One Sephardic appetizer was the meat pie, which Roberta called Pastel. Dawn prepared the Pastel. Roberta explained it has lots of ground beef, matzo meal and onions. Traditionally, Pastel is served as an appetizer with an egg that has been boiled with onion skins until it turns brown on the inside and its taste is changed. She didn’t serve those eggs this year, but everyone talked a lot about them.
Roberta’s charoset (the brick and mortar) contained dates and some other fruit goodies I couldn’t make out. The consistency was thick and wonderfully sweet. We loved it.
Once the main course was over, we made sure we asked Roberta if she had enough dessert as she brought homemade apple cake, chocolate mousse and a host of other desserts, as well as a platter of fruit to the table. I could feel my sugar levels rising as I looked at everything, but I had my heart set on that apple cake. It is always outstanding.
Food aside, what was truly wonderful about this Seder was the opportunity to be with Roberta and Bob and their great family. They always make us feel so welcome and we couldn’t be more grateful. For an unexpected invitation, our Seder away felt just like home.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.