In the Suburbs: Passover meal serves up bountiful memories
As a little boy, arriving home from school in Chicago every Passover, I was overwhelmed by the heavenly, albeit pungent, aroma from my grandmother’s secret gefilte fish recipe (a blend of three fishes, onions, spices and other Nana goodies), which permeated the entire block. It was that heavenly fish and so many more delicious foods that have truly defined this beautiful holiday for me and, I’m sure, millions of others.
Each Passover has become that much more special for me over the past seven decades, because every year this special food just seems to taste better. Or maybe it’s because my wife prepares these delicacies in her own wonderful style and we have even traveled to Chicago so she could learn Nana’s special gefilte fish recipe from my late mother and my aunt.
And just like my mom and my wife’s mother, who always turned the kitchen into a virtual Passover assembly line, we try to do the same thing so that each special course can be served and removed easily. Our older daughter Stacey always engineers the serving process.
Our Seder, the traditional Passover service, is generally short, so everything on the assembly line must be ready for when we happily arrive in the Haggadah (Passover prayer book) at the page that reads, “The Festival Meal is Served.
In the center of the beautiful Seder table along with the special cup of wine for the Prophet Elijah, who is known to stop by, is my mother’s Seder plate. The symbols are in specific sections on the plate. The Zeroa, shank bone, for instance, represents the lamb’s blood smeared over their door posts by Jews in ancient Egypt so the angel of death would pass over their homes during the killing of Egyptian firstborns (the 10th plague); Betza, the roasted egg, symbolizing the cycle of life and fertility; Karpas, the parsley, to symbolize the spring; Charoset, a heavenly mix of honey, Mogen David wine, nuts and apples, to symbolize the bricks and mortar used to build the pyramids; Maror, horse radish to symbolize bitter treatment endured by Jewish slaves, and salt water to symbolize the bitter tears shed by Jews during their 400 years of slavery.
A website called Jewishgiftplace.com also mentions a new item for the Seder plate, an orange. According to its writers, “The special foods eaten on Passover are also foods for thought. Every item on the Seder plate abounds in meaning and allusion. Because of this, there can be some variety in the foods used to celebrate Passover … Some Seders include an orange on the Seder Plate to honor feminism, gay and lesbian rights and rights for marginalized people.”
According to website, a Jewish scholar named Susan Heschel claims to have started the orange tradition to symbolize the intolerance of women and homosexuals in Judaism.
Once our festival meal begins, we roll out with my wife’s wonderful chicken soup and matza balls, followed by dishes of hard-boiled eggs in a bit of saltwater. While we won’t have gefilte fish this year, I remember when mom brought the fish to Connecticut during so many beautiful visits. She always garnished it with carrots from the mix and lovingly placed the fish on a bed of lettuce and tomato.
Bowls of sweet-tasting Charoset abound at our Seder table and folks nibble on it throughout the evening. My wife always makes plenty to last at least a week.
A Seder isn’t a Seder for us without chopped liver, mixed with good old-fashioned chicken schmaltz (fat), as a delicious appetizer. Our main courses have varied over the years from brisket, butterflied lamb, chicken thighs and breasts, turkey or a roasting chicken. Is anyone hungry yet? And my wife makes a flourless torte to die for as dessert.
By the time our guests get to the main course, which is usually accompanied by wonderful roasted vegetables of the holiday, they can barely eat another morsel. My wife has always been told that she makes too much, but loves doing it anyway and making care packages for any takers.
That pungent and wonderful aroma of gefilte fish filling our block in Chicago with the first smells of Passover seems like a lifetime away for me now, but I can still see my beautiful Nana, standing over the pot in our kitchen, lifting out pieces of fish and offering that first taste. “Come, Stevela,” she would say, “Try my fish.” Those memories will never leave me and have truly defined Passover for me.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.