My job for the last two Passovers has been to make the chopped liver. I had never tasted it, indeed had no acquaintance whatsoever with it except in its rhetorical form—“What am I, chopped liver?”—which, as a practical basis for making the stuff, is wholly inadequate. Worse, I had no cultural background against which to set my expectations. I don’t like surprises, and nothing in my French-Irish-English roots, nor in my sheltered upbringing, had prepared me.
In the backwater town where I grew up Jews were thin on the ground. I was aware of a half dozen, of whom I knew two brothers. We were in the band. They both seemed as normal as the rest of us, insofar as it’s possible for high school marching band members to be normal, except that one of them could do an uncanny Donald Duck impression. In college my vistas expanded, as we expect and count on, and I met more Jews, lived in the same house with Jews, and even talked with Jews. Though we often and enthusiastically broke the rules of polite conversation, we never delved too deeply into religion or culture, perhaps a little surprising for voracious engineer larvae. Jewishness lost its novelty, though not the exoticness born of my ignorance of how it worked.
Now, decades later, our friends Andrea and Don have invited Cheryl and me to an intimate Seder. Cheryl is both religious and involved in an interfaith group, so a Seder holds no mystery to her. I’m neither, so I do have a mystery to deal with, and a renewed sense of novelty. My ignorance is about to take a hit.
But first things first. I have to make chopped liver. In cooking, anything beyond boiling a soup lies outside my comfort zone. Andrea is a kind and considerate, not to mention capable, hostess, so she sent me a couple of recipes from her kosher cookbook. The one I chose provided the barest minimum of information, assuming an accumulated cooking experience way out of my league. I know that recipes are not precise instructions for achieving reproducible laboratory results, and that cooking is an opportunity to learn and recover from probable disaster. I know this, but it takes time to let my heart rule my head and embrace the learning, the salvaging. After a suitable period of angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin speculating and email consultation with friends about the size and shape of the pyrex pan and whether to bake it covered or uncovered—dithering—I bit the bullet and winged it.
This non-standard recipe sounded good—less fat, containing tomato juice, green peppers, and celery along with the usual livers, onions, and hard-boiled eggs. My cunning plan hinged on no one being the wiser if I screwed up an already oddball formulation, but the precaution was needless. It passed peer-reviewed muster at the Seder, and my teenaged grandchildren could not identify the leftovers as liver-bearing and did not spit it out until I told them.
Devotees of liver are scarce enough that my local Stop & Shop won’t even carry chicken liver—they could special-order some—but I did find it at the less upscale market where I buy 5-liter boxes of cheap Portuguese red. Liver is, of course, the gateway organ to other offal, the term with the marvelous homonym its aficionados embrace—likely less for its technical accuracy than to gross out the inadequately sophisticated. Nevertheless, my initial experiment went well enough that this year I’m willing to risk executing a more traditional recipe with undisguised liver predominating.
Beginner’s luck had carried me through my veggie-loaded baked version. I had been so ahead of the curve I even foresaw spillage from my mother’s old-fashioned and non-hermetically sealed meat grinder and strategically placed a leak deflector, avoiding some ugly collateral damage. My experience with this year’s batch, however, ran truer to form. First, estimates of cooking time on the Internet warrant only bitter laughter. Second, don’t use a blender when the recipe specifies a food processor, even though they both sport settings like “puree” and “chop.” This was a galling failure for me, a martinet for literalness and the necessity of correct terminology, and my own damn fault. Undaunted, I persevered, hauled out the trusty old meat grinder and made a full recovery, trading some time for experience. A triumph over such a small tribulation merited no such inordinate gratification as I felt. The dish reminded me of liverwurst—a good thing—but a couple of shades less subtle, and it, too, gratified.
Seder night arrives. Andrea and the women rebound from stove to cabinet to refrigerator to counter to drawers in near chaos, apparently echolocating their ways around each other. The drones concern themselves with filling and distributing wine glasses, and the Seder begins to coalesce as the last guests receive wine. Gefilte fish appears; the chopped liver debuts. This year’s version also passes, at least among those who can stomach liver.
We friends come to table to partake again of the power of eating together. However lightly I take the Seder, its language palpably sanctions identity and belonging. Contemplating plagues of frogs and boils, I can’t help sensing antiquity and continuity. I cannot read in the Maxwell House Haggadah about forswearing schadenfreude over vanquished enemies without a catch in my throat. I also can’t help smiling about a religious function that provides its participants with an exhaustive written cheat-sheet.
The Seder seems to me a well-balanced tool for achieving E pluribus unum. Shared meals constitute a sturdy and durable framework. The Haggadah presents a hard core of faith and ritual, explained in detail, but families are free to adapt and improvise; the cultural commentary provides common ground to help smooth doctrinal differences within the tribe. Maintaining a viable tribal identity is a fraught business. A weak tribe is guaranteed to be assimilated. A strong tribe irritates adjacent cultures, paradoxically increasing the likelihood of an immune response against which the tribe needs to be strong. It’s hard to know where the vicious circle will start. By allowing outsiders to be present, the Seder makes the prickly tribal edges a little softer, a little more permeable, a little less inflaming.
I have no dog in this hunt; one theology is as alien to me as the next. But I admit fondness for Old Testament Jehovah, who’d as soon smite you as give you the time of day. Gratification delayed until completion of hair-raising trials and swift and just retribution for sin are concepts sadly out of vogue. Perhaps the Jews’ genius lay in constructing the deity that they deserved and that exactly suited their survival needs. Learning how to deal with an arbitrary, vengeful tyrant, calibrating every move so as to be able to come within a hair’s breadth of being smitten, but no closer, must surely have honed their skill in navigating an inimical world.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. Recovering assembly language programmer. Not averse to litotes. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.