When author Marge Piercy was a little girl, her grandmother set a special place at the Passover seder for Blackie, her grandmother's cat.
He was a very dignified cat, Piercy recalled in an interview. "Blackie sat quietly in his chair while we went through the entire maggid," the re-telling of the Passover story.
Piercy's grandmother insisted that Blackie ate with a knife and fork -- but only if nobody was looking. So every Pesach, the young girl would wait to see if this night would be different from all other nights and the finicky feline would join the family and cut up his piece of pot roast.
Whether it was the warm memory of that cat or of watching her grandmother create the annual seder in her modest Cleveland apartment -- setting out her Passover-only dishes, ironing her spotless tablecloth saved for special occasions, polishing the fine silver candlesticks she had brought from Lithuania and, especially, preparing the traditional meal, Pesach remains the prolific poet and novelist's favorite holiday.
Piercy has just published "Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own," which is filled with insightful writings and illustrative poetry from the personal haggadah she's created for her own seders, as well as her recipes. On April 2, the first night of Passover, Piercy will honor her grandmother, Hannah Levi Bunnin, by cooking her Gedempte Flaisch Mit Abricotten (Pot Roast With Apricots) for guests at the seder she has presided over for the last 25 years.
"If I weren't honoring the memory of my bubelah, I would probably serve lamb, because of its association with Pesach," she wrote in the book. Although she loves recreating her grandmother's Ashkenazi menu, lately she's added Sephardic Chicken Soup (from Jews originally from Spain) and Mizrachi Charoset, (made by Jews of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran), because of her fascination with the different food traditions.
For this year's seder, she has created a special egg salad to eat during the part of the service that calls for dipping a sprig of parsley and a hard-boiled egg into saltwater to symbolize spring and the cycle of life, but also to make visceral the tears of the Jewish slaves in Pharaoh's Egypt.
Instead of the traditional basket of eggs passed around the table, Piercy serves eggs mixed with parsley, salt, cucumber, fennel, olive oil and lemon juice during the first part of the reading of the haggadah. Piercy says it's a time for lively discussion, but as the service is also long, people get hungry, especially the children, who just want to eat. So Piercy serves the salad right after the Hillel sandwich. Eating the eggs, parsley and salt in a salad fulfills the requirement; it's also an admirable start for the meal, she says.
A fish dish is traditionally served after the egg is eaten, and many matriarchs spend the better part of a day making fresh gefilte, a family favorite. But for the rest of us who have neither the time nor the inclination, Piercy offers an easy, appealing recipe for chopped herring.
Every year, Piercy says, she tries to make Passover more relevant to her life and to what is happening in the world. She has created her own, personal haggadah.
"It's 65 percent poetry -- it's been a 'work in progress' for more than two decades," she said.
Piercy dedicated "Pesach for the Rest of Us" to her grandmother, who in some sense presided over the seders of the writer's youth, though her grandmother's role was most of all about making sure everything was ready for the seder, because since she was Orthodox, her son presided over the service. Piercy says, however, that over the years, in writing her haggadah, she kept in mind, the importance of making tradition accessible to young people -- of touching each child and creating a feeling of belonging so they will turn toward, and not away, from their religion.
In the book, Piercy writes about how women over the past century have demanded that Judaism speak to them, that it serve and acknowledge their experiences, their needs and their humanity. She adds an orange on the seder plate and Miriam's cup to complement Elijah's.
"Pesach for the Rest of Us" offers visceral ways of experiencing our ancestor's journey, such as taking off our shoes and plunging our feet into cold water, reminiscent of the Sea of Reeds or walking outside and gazing at the moon to remind us the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles.
But best of all, she shares with us recipes that make sense today and no doubt would have appealed to the gentlemanly Blackie. Enough so, certainly, to make him pick up his knife and fork to cut up his herring.
Mizrachi Charoset 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice 1 cup apples, peeled, cored and quartered 1 cinnamon stick 3 cardamom pods 1/2 cup almonds and pistachios 1/2 cup pitted dates 1/2 cup white figs 1/4 cup dried cherries 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds Black pepper to taste 1/4 cup cherry or orange brandy, sweet wine or grape juice Honey or brown sugar to taste (optional)
Sprinkle lemon juice over the apples. Set aside. In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. When they have consistency of a powder, add nuts and then the apples and dried fruit. Keep a light hand on the pulse button. Consistency should have a bite to it.
Remove ingredients to a large bowl. Fold in pomegranate seeds, brandy, wine or grape juice and, if desired, sugar or honey.
Taste charoset to see if it is just the right blend of sweet and tart. Add honey or sugar for sweetness, lemon juice to make it more tart. Mix to combine. Serve in glass bowl.
Makes 3 1/2 cups.
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