Seder in the City

My family has always celebrated Easter in the traditional way. Immediate and extended family get together for a day of rejoicing, food & wine, laughter and play. The menu changes from year to year. Sometimes we’ll bake a ham or roast a leg of lamb. More often than not my grandmother will prepare her famous Haitian turkey, as my family need not wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy this specialty of the house.

Despite living in New York my whole life, I’ve never capitalized on the opportunity to attend a formal seder for Passover. When it rains it pours, because this year I had to turn down two dinner offers, but finally I managed to attend one at the home of my best friend on Thursday.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of what happens during a seder, and I have to say that a night of storytelling and eating has always appealed to me. In fact, I try to arrange dinner parties in just this way.

I admit to being a bit leery of the food and the wine. I’m not a big fan of Kosher restrictions, with its archaic by-laws concerning pork and dairy products. I respect those who follow this regimen, and have also noticed the gradual improvement in the overall quality of Kosher wines.

At the home of Dr. L. and Dr. Y., charter members of the Grand Crew, the food and the wine would be prepared with precision, care and expertise.

But before I get to the meal itself, I would like to focus on the importance of the seder. Dr.L.’s father, John, was the patriarch and sort of emcee for the dinner, and he performed his task with love, humor, vivacity and compassion. He assigned roles appropriately and with ease, incorporating the two children present (David and Allison), and utilizing every adult perfectly. Much of the symbolism was explained carefully and colorfully. Dr. Y.’s mother speaks fluent Hebrew, and she orates as if she had been a rabbi in a former life. Her enunciation had such spirit and depth of feeling, I felt as is she were chanting.

The ceremony was kept to about an hour, and because of the choice of program (haggadah) did not feel lengthy at all. The family and friends retold the story of Moses and Exodus, as well as employed several storytelling techniques and role playing to discuss the importance of remembrance and commemoration of things past. The universal message I came away with from Passover is that as long as people are suffering in the world under tyranny or oppression, we must remember, pray, and not tolerate this for our brothers and sisters.

Four cups of wine are sipped throughout the service, and nearing the last song and blessing, my appetite was sufficiently whetted and prepared for a feast. Dr.Y., an excellent baker, diligently prepared some classics using only the best ingredients and recipes.

First up was an elegant matzoh ball soup, hand rolled, light, ethereal matzoh balls floated in a rich, luxurious broth prepared by her husband, no slouch when it comes to soups.

This was followed by gefilte fish, a curiously ethnic dish that would normally strike fear even into an adventurous eater such as myself. Again, fresh fillets were used to create light-bodied dumplings, an acquired taste, and certainly a better tasting and looking version than I have ever had. They resembled French quenelles. The family ate it up.

For the main courses, Dr.L.’s mother prepared two beef briskets, which were succulent, moist and a bit fatty, all qualities I admire and enjoy. It was easily the best I had ever tasted.

Not in direct competition, Dr. L. served a sort of Kosher choucoutre garni. Replacing all the traditional pork products, Dr.L. inserted beef brisket, beef tongue, beef sausage and of course sauerkraut. Slow-cooked overnight, this one pot wonder was a masterful display of ingenuity and religious observance, illustrating the importance of technique and imagination necessary to cooking. I had three plates and took home leftovers.

As accompaniments to the main dishes, Dr. Y. baked a potato kugel, airy with a crunchy crust, and a carrot ring, unleavened and also sporting a tasty crust, exuding a light carrot flavor and aroma.

On a recent trip to Israel, Dr. L. & Y. brought back a few bottles of red and white wine. The majority tasted like standard table wine, forgettable, but some paired well with food. A 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was enhanced by the brisket, and I even tried some good old-fashioned Manischevitz, a favorite of mine since childhood – I’m not afraid to admit. Finally we switched to a Julienas and a wine from the Coulloire, both good, friendly matches for the food.

No successful seder would be complete without dessert, and Dr. Y. met the challenge with a flourless almond cake with orange, a delectable creation with a refreshing, moist filling. Only crumbs were left.

Sated, I retired to play tic-tac-toe and Gameboy with the kids (they whipped me), and I felt like part of the family. Everyone was happy to be with each other, and this is no small task considering the effort required to pull off a dinner of this magnitude in the midst on NYC holiday traffic.

Nothing is more important than family traditions, and if you can prepare and enjoy the best food possible, food filled with love, than you too can recline, like kings and queens for a day.