Like many Moroccan-born Jews who emigrated to the United States, Solange Emsellem, 71, is superstitious. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, she will not serve black olives for fear that the color and sour taste might augur evil for the coming year. She removes the purple-black skin of eggplants for similar reasons.
"I know it's in my head," she says at her Rockville, Md., home. "We think of black as a mourning color, not like green, which is for happiness for the New Year and the harvest period."
Prior to the festive Rosh Hashanah meal, which marks the beginning of the two-day holiday, Emsellem, like other Sephardic Jews (Jews whose ancestors came from Spain and Portugal), will say a prayer over a number of symbolic fruits and vegetables. This year Rosh Hashanah comes unseasonally early, commencing the evening of Labor Day. Since this is also the beginning of the fall harvest season, fall food and vegetables are celebrated.
First, \o7 sept legumes \f7 (seven vegetables) boiled and then baked with sugar, cinnamon and a little margarine, will be tasted. Emsellem will include three different kinds of squash--pumpkin, zucchini and yellow--as well as turnips, onions, carrots and spinach. Before tasting the various vegetables, her husband Albert will recite the following prayer: "May the coming year grow as a gourd in fullness of blessing. In the year to come, if enemies gather against us, mayest Thou guard us as we eat of this gourd with the prayer: Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the earth."
The head of a fish or lamb will be served to the senior family members at the table, "so we will begin the new year at the head, not the tail," Emsellem says, laughing. As part of the meal, she will serve baked whole sea trout with red peppers, garlic and cilantro.
Other prayers, including the wish for a happy, sweet, plentiful and prosperous year will be made both nights of the holiday over dates and sesame and anise seeds. The first night an apple will be dipped in honey, and the second night the blessing will be said over a pomegranate. "God wants the Jews to multiply like sesame or pomegranate seeds," Emsellem explains.
When Emsellem came to the United States 21 years ago from Fez, Morocco, her recipes were more Moroccan than what she cooks today. Having American-born grandchildren, she has learned to make American dishes and uses store-bought instead of homemade filo dough.
Inherited from her forebears who fled from Toledo, Spain, at the time of the Expulsion in 1492, Emsellem's recipes, with their unique blend of Moroccan, French and American influences, have been modified to take advantage of the American ingredients she uses today. The French influence on Moroccan culture and cuisine plays itself out in Emsellem's kitchen, as does the French language, which still comes more naturally to her than English, even after many years in this country.
After a short ceremony, Emsellem will serve a festive dinner in her apartment. The meal will begin with a blessing over \o7 pain petri\f7 ("kneaded bread"), the sweet Moroccan challah that is made circular to symbolize a full, "round" year. "It should taste sweet, like a brioche," says Emsellem. "At Rosh Hashanah we dip it into sugar, not salt, as we do for the Sabbath." Although Emsellem does not, many Moroccan women include sesame and anise seeds in their rendition of \o7 pain petri. \f7
As every Moroccan Jewish festival meal, Emsellem's meal will open with a spread of cooked salads--carrots, peppers and eggplant (with the ill-omened black skin removed)--dishes cooked in advance, and particularly suited to this year's warm beginning of the New Year.
The meal will continue with the baked sea trout followed by the famous Moroccan pastels, meat-filled turnovers. In Morocco, her main course would have included a tongue with green olives, but because of her American grandchildren, she now makes brisket instead.
Honey-dipped "cigars" filled with ground almonds, French mocha cakes, Napoleons and macaroons will be the dessert instead of the typical Eastern European honey cake found in the majority of American Jewish homes.
The following day, after Rosh Hashanah morning services, in Moroccan Jewish homes a traditional Moroccan couscous is served with a sweet vegetable dish. And on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement)--10 days after Rosh Hashanah--tea and \o7 figuelas\f7 ("figs"), deep-fried pastries soaked in a sweet syrup, break the fast.