Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, begins in two days. Or more accurately, two nights. Although it's my favorite annual Jewish celebration, I've barely started my preparations for Friday night's seder, the eclectic combination of religious service, storytelling saga, songfest and holiday meal with an array of foods (some symbolic, others purely gastronomic) to rival any Thanksgiving feast. And, at this point, Saturday night's seder planning simply hasn't started.
So, you can imagine how I felt when I read award-winning cookbook author Joan Nathan's article in The New York Times last week about her nine-day Passover preparation plan. I love Nathan's imaginative, globe-scanning take on Jewish cuisine and her commitment to preserving culinary history. In fact, I rely on many of her recipes for my holiday meals. I also like her sage seder advice: "Make a list. Follow it. Always accept help when offered. And remember to create your own family traditions."
But nine days of prep, including an elaborate gefilte fish-making gathering with six of her friends? Homemade horseradish? Placecards for the guests? Practice runs for new recipes? Slow-cooked eggs in sand? "[A]t least five least five variations of haroseth, a mixture of sweet fruit and nuts that symbolizes the mortar used for buildings in Egypt"? Please! Joan! Dayenu! (That's seder Hebrew for "Enough!") Nathan is clearly not a working mom with a non-culinary-oriented job and two young kids.
In some ways, Nathan's nine-day plan reminds me of my grandmother's holiday preparations. Her cooking wasn't as sophisticated or culturally diverse as Nathan's but her holiday preparations were, perhaps, even more intense. She cleaned, koshered, and cooked for what seemed like weeks in a tiny apartment galley kitchen, grinding fish, onions, and meat by hand (Nathan owns up to the KitchenAid mixer, a life-altering invention), baking her Passover sponge cake with cartons of eggs, and setting up folding tables all over the apartment for the guests. (She also put lots of the prepared food out on the fire escape for storage days in advance of the seder. It's amazing that we never came down with food poisoning!)
Like Nathan and my grandmother (and my mom, too, who took over our family's seders from my grandmother), I take the seder seriously even if my own family's traditions that differ from theirs. (For starters, we're Reconstructionists and my husband and kids are vegetarians. So, for example, we use a roasted beet rather than a shankbone on our seder plate.). Unlike them, all my Passover cleaning and cooking, will be compressed into two days - tomorrow and Friday - two days that I'm taking as vacation days from work. (I did get a jump start last week by shopping for some special Passover ingredients at a nearby kosher supermarket. Last year, I waited until too close to the holiday and wound up being clobbered by another customer vying for the same Kosher for Passover popover rolls!) I will shop for fresh ingredients Thursday morning and then press go on the Cuisinart. We won't have homemade gefilte fish or horseradish or placecards but we'll have (I hope) a welcoming and meaningful seder and plenty of fresh, appealing food including some South American-inspired Jewish dishes in honor of an upcoming trip to the region. We'll also have our cousin's new version of the ten plagues just published in The Huffington Post, geared for this year's election cycle.
Plus, my seder preparations are authentic. According to the biblical story of Passover, the Jews were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they couldn't wait for the bread they were baking to rise so they took with them, instead, unleavened cakes of dough - matzah. There was no time for testing out new recipes or baking eggs overnight in sand. So my own working mom's Passover plan, which involves a lot of shopping, cooking, and cleaning in a hurry is more in line with the original story of the Exodus than Nathan's leisurely nine-day plan. Well, that's what I'm telling myself!
Happy Holidays to those of you who will be sitting down to Passover or Easter feasts this weekend. And to all, enjoy the return of spring and the renewal of the earth.