From Cayenne Red Pepper To Honey Pie – Lori Cohen

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 I open my eyes, waking to the thought that, Oh my G-d, the first night of Passover is only 12 days away. At least I have a thought in my head, a complex, multi-step thought that implies that I know that it’s late March, that a holiday is coming, that that holiday is Passover, that I can count and, that I need to do something about it.

In these strangest of days, I am grateful for complex thoughts that require numerous mental leaps, thoughts that also lead to and are about something in the future; something to look forward to. My thoughts this morning, different than all thoughts every other day of this week, when I’ve been opening my eyes to a blank slate. . . which for me, is dangerous. I need to think.

It’s 5:00 am, he’s slept long enough. I can’t sleep, so why should he. Besides, it’s only 45 minutes earlier than we usually get up, during the week, but today it’s Sunday, I think. It’s still so dark out.

“Harlan, how should we get food to the boys and should we go Passover shopping today or should we start bringing up the dishes from the basement?”

“Is it only 5:10 am?”

“Lori, you continue to be the town crier? It’s 5:00 in the morning. You’re too much!”

He’s laughing. Better to laugh than to cry or yell. I’m glad I can still amuse him. I’m trying during these trying times.

“Give me another half hour and we’ll discuss it.” He tosses and turns. I don’t. I lie very still, pondering.

I try to fall back to sleep in the only way I know how lately, naming things in alphabetical order; Beatle songs, condiments, colors in a box of 64 Crayola crayons, from “All My Loving” to Cayenne to Magenta. Sometimes, the colors and the condiments overlap. Sometimes the Beatle songs do too, “Yellow Submarine” and “Honey Pie”. These thoughts do not help me fall back to sleep, they do not help me with anything other than to come to the realization that I am losing my mind, very quickly, which is frightening and frightening thoughts such as losing my mind prevent me from falling back to sleep. I have trouble coming up with condiments, colors and songs beginning with the letter “U”, making it even harder for me to fall back to sleep. Now I’m thinking much too hard.

Apple cake, brisket, carrots, dark chocolate covered matza, eggs, fish, gefilte and horseradish, things to serve at our seder in alphabetical order. This year, we will be hosting an unprecedented number of people, three. If I do not count myself, since every other year, I never get a chance to sit, it’s two, Harlan and our daughter Sophia, who is home from college, as is every other young person between 18 and 22, on coronavirus break. Sadly, for Soph, she’s a senior. She’s home for good.

Hmm, on the bright side, there’s no need to fight over whether we must move every single pot and pan with lids (although most of the lids, over the years, have gone missing), spring form pan that’s missing its bottom, wooden spoon, stainless steel spatula and 87 serving bowls of all sizes and materials, not to mention two complete sets of silverware into another room, to make room for all of those same items, but the Kosher for Passover counterparts, those that wait in the basement all year long for that one week they get carried upstairs, in large plastic storage containers.

In all other years, I’m screaming and cursing. “Who needs this? I have no time for this. I’m not getting younger. It’s too much and you, you never let anyone bring a damn thing in to help me. No one is Kosher enough. I’m not doing this anymore. It’s far too much for a single person.” I know if I keep this up, I will be a single person.

“So, give it up. Never make another Seder again. I’ll go to the Seder at the Temple by myself, I’ll be alone. I don’t need this aggravation,” he answers.

Yet, at the same time, I’m lovingly releasing each Passover juice glass from their prior year’s New York Times wrapping paper, always stopping to read what was going on last year, who died on the day we wrapped up the dishes last year, before putting them to rest for another year in the basement.

I remember where all our Passover things came from over the years. Which dishes we rescued from being thrown away in the various houses we’ve cleaned out after our parents died. I think of my family seders growing up, large gatherings at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn, lasting all night long. My great-grandfather chanting, my mother, smoking and gossiping, others getting drunk on more than four glasses of wine. I recall the large seders with Harlan’s family in Wayne, laughing till we cried at my father-in-law’s antics, eating the afikomen, the matza the leader hides, and then asking the kids to go find it. The funny voices he used to read from the Haggadah; “The Mountains Skipped Like Rams. . .” “The year that Ginger was at the seder, in the 1990s. Not the condiment, but rather, the Ginger formerly known as Jeffrey, decades before Trans was politically correct.

“Do you really need two of these enormous, pink plastic bowls?” Harlan asks every year.

“Yes, for the 36 hard-boiled eggs,” I answer every year, “and for the salt water to go with them.”

“You know you have three or four different sets of dishes.”

“That’s right, I answer,” you didn’t want to get rid of anything of your mother’s. Her fish shaped, cut glass plates and matching glass soup bowls live on in the basement until we let them up for air.”

“Do you need all of these utensils?”

“Do you forget that we have all this because this is the way you wanted it when we got married? All the Passover pilgrimages to Fortunoff’s (if only there were still a Fortunoff’s), picking every slotted spoon, strainer, apple slicer and nut crusher off the shelves? not to mention, the Fortunoff Haggadahs? And then, the food shopping. No, we don’t need to replace the cayenne pepper, the cinnamon and the granulated onion every single year. We can start to carbon date those still in the pantry, along with the containers of matzo meal and Passover cake meal from the turn of the century (at least it’s this century).

 

35 years later, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, I am re-living all the Aprils of my marriage, between 5:10 and 5:45 a.m. I know I’ve lost my mind.

What does a 3-person Passover seder in northern New Jersey look like?

No gigantic pot of meatballs on the stove. My classic recipe, “a crowd pleaser”, the cookbook says, in italics, one can of cranberry sauce for every 26 oz. jar of Gefen marinara sauce (also known as Gefen pizza sauce, Gefen tomato basil sauce, Gefen roasted garlic sauce, all the same sauce, just different labels). With no large pot of meatballs, no worries that the bottom of the cheap Kosher for Passover aluminum stock pot will burn. There was that one year that the bottom of the pot stayed on the stove top, separate and apart from the rest of the pot. Passover disaster 2008? Who can remember the year? They all blend together so well. Was that the same year that my father-in-law didn’t snap lock the top onto the container of my mother-in-law’s soup and it spilled all over everything, matzo balls rolling all over the kitchen floor. My kitchen was fragrant with the smell of chicken soup for weeks.

No need to pore over my Passover cookbooks and assorted recipes, yellowed, ripped and annotated in an overstuffed manila folder stowed away in our “holiday” cabinet in the breakfast room. All those years I studied recipes, planning menus titled: Passover: 1986, 1998, 2003, 2012, 2013-19 and each year, those menus looking remarkably the same as all other years.

No worries about factoring in the time to scrub and peel ten pounds of potatoes for 2 potato kugels that no one eats anymore anyway.  No need to agonize about whether to serve the pineapple matza kugel, baked in one of those spring-form pans that does still have a base, for dessert or for a side. Since Harlan won’t eat it, Soph and I choose it as a side and, whatever is left over, we’ll finish for dessert.

No need to remember not to forget to cook the gefilte fish loaves. This year, I can loaf off by boiling and simmering a single loaf with a single carrot (I’ll go for two carrots).

No need to buy yet another shaker container of Lieber’s cayenne red pepper or cinnamon or a teddy bear plastic squeeze bottle of honey to be added to the other 11 in the pantry.

No need for Sophia to bake 12 different Passover cakes. Although some are made with chocolate and some with fruit, they all taste the same (and even though the cookbooks say You’d never know this is Kosher for Passover, we do; they all are the same – Passover flavored). Each one however, looks beautiful. She is a culinary artist.

Passover, twelve days away. In all other years, by now, Harlan has already brought up the three or four folding tables required to seat the 24 – 35 people we usually host, caught a finger in a hinge and screamed Oww. He’s covered the shelves in the pantry with white paper and put plastic sheets on the shelves in the fridge, which will remain there though at least Thanksgiving, complete with the rings left from the opened jars of the Gefen tomato sauces used for the crowd-pleasing Passover meatballs.

In all other years, I’ve entered the one week to go date in my calendar – 8:30 pm – to begin and hopefully finish setting places for more than 30. That means the silverware has already been washed and, that I have been to Party City to find decorative dinner napkins different from last year and the year before, some new variation of black, ivory and gold. As I’ve separated the three or four flatware patterns into separate plastic bags the year before, I don’t have to worry that Aunt Diane or Helen or Sid or any of my sisters-in-law will have a soup spoon that doesn’t match the salad fork at their place-settings. Whether the utensil is bent or tarnished beyond recognition, that’s a different story. It’s Passover silverware, it’s not supposed to be perfect. The napkins are folded on the diagonal and, the scalloped glass plates are stacked just so, so that the scalloped salad plate evenly lines up with the scallops on the dinner plate (and by scallops, I mean decorative, not the seafood not Kosher for Passover). I make sure that all stains and burn marks on all tablecloths are covered with either a vase or a candlestick holder. Often, I listen to the radio while setting the table, so I’m kept up to date on the latest bad news or Rolling Stones album.

The lead table, our main dining room table is set with my great-grandmother’s china, which I’ve been told is from Europe, but who knows. It is very old, the now crackled ivory plates with the wide gold leaf borders. The china that had mysteriously disappeared for years, after we moved to Hillsdale, only to be found in my in-law’s garage, about to be thrown out. That table gets my grandmother Ida’s fancy stainless. One of the teaspoons is mangled since it fell down the disposal in the sink some years ago. It goes on the table anyway. By 3:30 the day of, I’ve put the last kugel back in the over. I’m worn out and the guests are not scheduled to arrive for another hour to hour and a half, giving me time to work on my smile.

 

I look at the clock. It’s 6:00 am. He’s still sleeping; I’ve relived my entire Passover life, from Cake meal to kugel, from meatballs to matzo balls. Harlan starts to move around; he looks at the clock. “It’s 6:00 already.” He gives me a morning kiss and announces “it looks nice out. Birds are singing. The trees are green again. The first flowers are coming up. I’d like to try to plant peonies again. Nature is oblivious to coronavirus.”

“Wow, that’s profound,” I answer. “Far more profound than what we need to do to prepare for our three-person seder.”

“Well, not really,” he tells me. “There is order in nature. Winter turns to spring. Birds come out. Leaves turn green. Seder means order. Passover brings you some order in your life, whether you like it or not. I think you’re grieving that order. It’s loss. Order is natural. Order is nature, both physical nature and human nature.”

“Listen to you, a philosopher. You are right. For now, we are alright. It will be a different night, a different time in our home. A Seder for three. I can make chicken soup, which I can’t for a crowd of 30. I won’t use 60 eggs, maybe only 30 this year and, I think 5 pounds of matza should be enough for the three of us. I think I’ll make beef ribs seasoned with a bit of cayenne pepper and chicken cutlets in a honey glaze and vegetable kugel with no potatoes and cinnamon apple cake, using all the condiments remaining from Seders of the past.  At least I’ll put out my great-grandmother’s dishes and maybe even the mangled spoon to keep the tradition. I can sit at the table this year and read from the yellow Fortunoff Haggadah. This year, we will dip to an 11th plague.

Maybe I’ll feel like a human being when it’s over, instead of one of the washed-out dishrags from the evening clean up. I won’t worry about eating all the leftover cake that no one wanted to take home and, we’ll have good food to last us for the long next days to come.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem so terrible. Maybe a stripped down seder will be ok for once, it will be ordered, but a different kind of order than all other years.

We’re Jews, we’re resilient.  It will be a Seder different from every other Seder, but we will survive. We’re Jews.

________________________

As a postscript, this year, different than all other years, at Sophia’s suggestion, we will add a small cluster of grapes to our Seder plate, grapes that grow in nature, that grow together on a common vine, even though the grapes branch out in different directions. A symbol of togetherness, even though this year, togetherness is not physically possible. The grapes on our Seder table are not limited to Kosher grapes, but to all.

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