March 18, 1999
Just in Time
Jeff, the guy from the party rental place, left this phone message two weeks ago:
"Passover is March 31," he said, "and, say Marlene, you always call us the last minute. Do you think you might plan a bit ahead this time?"
Jeff isn't even Jewish, but his calendar was right. I always leave everything to the last minute, from making the gefilte fish to writing the annual haggadah. When my guests arrive, they typically find me grating horseradish, my eyes bleary with tears. Then they have to help set the table, collate the copies from Kinkos and arrange the flowers. Until this year, I thought last-minute hospitality was the pursuit of freshness, or otherwise part of my charm. After all, the children of Israel only had a few hours to plan for their liberation. Having more than a day to plan a seder seems like overkill.
Then, a week ago, I spoke to my friend Carrie.
"I don't want to rush your calendar, but what are you doing for Passover?" I asked. But Carrie had her plans set in concrete.
Then I called my cousin Rita, who knew for certain that she was spending the first night with her sister-in-law, Mary, who already had her chicken soup in the freezer. The broth was only awaiting the matzo balls. Rita was making the potato kugel she was planning to bring with her even as we spoke.
It only got worse. I have been making Passover seders for 20 years, and I have a huge core crowd of extended family who wouldn't go anywhere else but my home. But I always like to add new people since I too was once a stranger in a strange land. But all my favorite "strangers" this year were already accounted for. My friend Andy, an award-winning caterer, not only had his plans but he'd made his tzimmes and brisket last weekend. It seems that only I was still thinking that Passover was a big surprise party. The surprise was on me, who had not yet ordered my whitefish, pike and carp.
Maybe it is because I am a Baby Boomer and grew up in what was once called the Age of Anxiety, the post-Bomb era, that I have never been good at planning ahead. My husband, who was older than me by a generation, was even worse in this regard. Our first Passover together was memorable because Burton called his cousins at 4:30 to ask if we could attend their seder, which was starting at 6.
Even when it became a certainty that Passover was my holiday, just as Thanksgiving is my friend Marika's, I still never got in the groove. I think it has something to do with the smells. I love the smells of the holidays, the rich aroma of beef and chicken and fish that come together just around 4 p.m. when the guests arrive. So that's one reason I do almost everything at last minute.
Another reason is that, in contrast to Greta Garbo, I don't really want to be alone. I only begin planning my Passover right after my parents declare they've bought their airline tickets. Cooking for Passover, to me, means cooking with Mom.
It wasn't always like that. When I was young and newly married, my friends and I put together a gourmet Passover. The more esoteric the foods, the better. Some years we'd have lamb, others we'd be vegetarian. We were brave and creative --and nuts.
As I got older, I wanted my daughter to know a real seder. I needed real Jewish foods exactly as I had had them. At that point, my parents felt confident that it was safe to eat at my table, so long as my mother helped to cook. Rather than have her shlep three slabs of brisket from Florida to L.A., I left all the cooking until my mother arrived. I waited each year so she could show me for the thousandth time how she mixed together Hungarian paprika, garlic salt and oil into a luscious paste for baked chicken. Doing the work together made the day fly.
From time to time, my mother and father would stay in New York and Florida, so over time, my friend Willie began to share the cooking load. Willie, too, is a last-minute chef; she'd come to the house in the late afternoon, and make her renowned light-as-air matzo balls even as the seder began, spooning them into the rolling vat of soup.
But this year, my parents are staying in Florida. Willie and her husband are in Japan. I'm still having a table of 20, so what will I do?
The older we get, the earlier we begin. I used to think it is the labor alone that makes people start their holiday planning. But now I think we begin cooking and planning for Passover early because we need our memories to come alive, a testimony of faith in the present. We'll be thinking about who isn't coming this year, and who won't be there next year. And soon enough, long before you need to, the big rush begins: You first buy the ingredients, then, what the heck, you might as well start making it. And before you know it, the soup is in Tupperware in the freezer, and the brisket is ready for slicing. So this year, Jeff got his order early. Who knows, if I do my preparing early enough, I'll be ready for Passover, memories and all, just in time.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will appear at Barnes & Noble in Calabasas on Sunday March 21.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.