We’re driving back to Chicago as I write this, having spent the weekend visiting our daughter, and as soon as I get home, I’ll be swinging into P-mode (Passover Prep) , so while the sun is shining, the roads are clear, and obviously, I’m not driving, now’s as good a time as any to put down some thoughts. Not surprisingly, all things cooking come to mind.
There are some changes in our family this year, all good. Several of our wonderful nephews are approaching Passover this year with special women in their lives, and though the “boys” now live on opposite ends of the world, what faces them is the same: how do they begin making traditions for their nascent family units? Do they take family recipes and try to recreate the taste memories? Do they use the past only as a reference, and then tweak, taste, simmer and serve? Or do they start from scratch, first trying to boil down the holiday to its essence? How does the story change when it’s told from newer, different pots? How do they add their own flavors without overwhelming the tastes? How do they incorporate completely new tastes from completely different kitchens, who have never even tasted Passover flavors? A couple of the ‘phews have written to me and their moms about this with questions, so as long as they’ve asked…..
Dear nephews: Passover is all about multi-levels, metaphors, signs and symbols. As you may guess, and as you’ve experienced in one way or another with your own moms, this week is all about preparation. On one level it’s pretty straightforward. Before you start telling the story, clean the house, get rid of the chametz (leavening, puffed-up-ness), and start cooking special foods. So, in that sense, we are doing basic spring cleaning, with an added historical/Biblical/traditional/etc context; we can also try to remove the chametz , the puffed-up-ness, from our lives. Cleanse, clear out, and cook. In the next few days, there are going to be pots of soup, ovens full of food, platters and plates…are you all going to cook something new or reheat childhood Passover leftovers?
Let’s start with the basics in the cabinet. The essence of Passover is telling the story of moving from slavery to freedom, from oppression to liberation, from constrictedness (“mitzrayim”, Egypt, but also narrowness) to openness, and most importantly, feeling that we ourselves have experienced this journey from slavery to freedom. How do we get that feeling? Certainly none of us was there, and no one we know or have ever known was there. But each of us has been enslaved to something; we have been oppressed by something, or have been caught in narrow and uncomfortable places. And so have many others. The Torah tells us over and over again that we know what slavery was like. We have tasted this bitter food before, so we must be ever-vigilant that others not eat it either, and be ever alert to those who are tasting of this bitter stew now.
So I’m thinking of you this year, my dear nephews, you who are embarking on your own journeys into a new land, and you have to decide what to take with you and what to leave behind. What will lighten your load and what will weigh you down? What will nourish you and what will leave you hungering for more?
Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Use the basic, traditional ingredients, because without them, there is no anchor for the flavors. It’s a tried and true recipe, in the best sense, so try not to toss too much out. Revisit them, in fact, if it’s been awhile, because it’s hard to know what to toss if you don’t take the time to know what’s in the pantry first. Taste and adjust, then taste again. Find what works best for your palate, but don’t forget to tell of those who have gone before, because Passover recipes are more than the sum of their collected spices and flavorings. You may not get it just right the first year, but keep at it. After all, liberation comes ‘round every spring, when beautiful new things are growing and finding the sun, so you’ll add to your recipe file each year.
Happy Pesach to you and the lucky loves in your lives. I can’t wait to be at the same table with you all again, and what a fascinating collection of tastes that will be!