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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

Surviving the Rites of Passover

Traditions Old and New Give Meaning to Her First Seder

April 05, 1998|Mary Melton is the magazine's research editor

A few months before my husband and I were married last year, we hosted our first Passover seder. The guests of honor were my family--that is, the non-Jewish, West Coast half of our union, most of whom were unfamiliar with the dinner celebrating the Hebrews' liberation from Egyptian bondage. My family was unsure what to expect. So were we.

As the Santa Anas blew hard and hot, we propped open the windows of our un-air-conditioned apartment to keep cool. The windows rattled and, worse, the front door, traditionally left ajar should the prophet Elijah decide to drop in, kept slamming shut. I hoped this wasn't a sign--from my soon-to-be mother-in-law, perhaps?--that I, a shiksa, shouldn't be attempting this important meal.

I knew deep down, of course, that Ed's mom supported me. She had given me recipes from the Passover seders we had enjoyed with her family in New York: fabulous roasted chicken and matzo-ball soup, potato kugel and orange-glazed carrots, macaroons and the deliciously sweet spread of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine known as haroset. But this year, we were on our own. I prayed for culinary magic to rub off on our dinner, maybe from the engagement ring of Ed's late Grandma Gussie, which now encircled my finger.

Armed with the handed-down recipes and "Faye Levy's International Jewish Cookbook" (Warner Books), Ed and I spent Passover eve frantically planning a seder for our 15 guests. It's bad enough cooking for that many people at a wienie roast, but this was Passover. We felt the pressure of thousands of years of tradition.

As it turned out, our menu wound up being mostly vegetarian. We diced red radishes and plum tomatoes for a Mediterranean salad, cucumbers and bell peppers for an Israeli one; we sauteed eggplant and roasted lemon-scented asparagus; we baked a Manischewitz marble cake. In our state-of-the-art-less kitchen, Ed dutifully chopped walnuts and almonds by hand until midnight. Fourteen dishes later, I was more than a little tired and began asking inane questions about what did and didn't qualify as unleavened bread. ("Are you sure raisins are OK?")

When the sun set the next evening, everyone in my family listened attentively to--and read from--the haggadas, which explain through prayer and stories the significance behind the seder rituals. My young nieces and nephews loved the customary hunt for hidden matzo. They liked sneaking sips of the ceremonial wine. They took to the haroset as if it were candy. They did eventually draw the line, however, starting their own ritual of loudly passing on the gefilte fish ("Eeew!"). Unseasonable heat and wind long forgotten, our first seder was, amazingly, a success.

Of the recipes I inherited, it's no surprise that I'm fondest of one from Grandma Gussie, a savory spread of string beans, onions and walnuts eaten with matzo. It will always hold a special place at our seder table. Grandma Gussie called it her vegetarian chopped liver, but I recommend against using the L-word, especially around kids. So what if no one in her Depression-era Bronx would have ever called it pate? I've learned that there's always room for new traditions.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Grandma Gussie's Vegetarian Chopped Liver

Makes about 3 cups

*

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pound fresh string beans

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste*

*

Heat vegetable oil in skillet over medium heat and saute onions until translucent and slightly browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Clean string beans and cook in vegetable steamer until soft, but not mushy, about 10 to 12 minutes. Rinse beans in cold water to retain color. Combine sauteed onions, beans, walnuts and hard-boiled eggs in food processor or blender. Season with kosher salt and pepper. Chop until mixture attains spread-like consistency. Chill. Serve as appetizer with matzo.

*

Food stylist: Norman Stewart; plates from Maison et Cafe, Los Angeles *

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