Passover is one of my favourite holidays. I have happy memories of seders in Providence, New York and Iowa City, usually potluck affairs with assorted impoverished grad students and Jewish and non-Jewish waifs and strays. The evenings would be full of last minute discussions about the charoset recipe, culinary innovations both successful and not so successful (I’m not sure I’ll be having gefilte fish sushi again), and drunken debate over what comes next and how we might render the text less patriarchal, heterocentrist and Zionist. I love the particular challenges of cooking for Passover – in cooking, as in many other fields, restriction leads to creativity – but I’m also not religious and don’t especially mind if a few rules get broken here and there. At one memorable seder, a gentile friend brought pasta with ham, shrimp and cream, the most hilariously inappropriate dish imaginable and also delicious. This culinary mixture represents my attraction to the holiday: for all the conservative and religious aspects that chafe in the traditional seder, it’s a holiday that centres exactly that debate. What do oppression and freedom mean for Jews today? Who is included or not included and what part do we play? And how can we engage all of those ideas in the form of food?
So I was thrilled this year to discover the Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah, a progressive, activist and queer-inclusive text for the Pesach seder. It’s a sometimes hilarious lefty manual for the seder, inserting the oppression of the US government and the IMF into the explanation of matzah and replacing the traditional four children with new characters like the trans child. But funny as it is to read this critical theory/haggadah mashup, it’s also kind of great. It suggested an orange on the seder plate to represent the fruitfulness for all when lesbians and gay Jews are included, and rewrote the Kiddush to say, “This year, we drink to the people around the world who have taken to the streets, the buildings, the cities in prostest of unjust, racist and classist wars.” It suggested we share stories of active resistance that we had participated in or been inspired by over the past year, and we did. By focusing on activism, inclusivity and social justice, the haggadah provided a map for exactly the kind of engaged conversation that make the Passover seder a meaningful ritual even for an atheist Jew like me.
As in the seder, so in this post I’m taking forever to get to the food. It’s the way of Passover…there’s a lot of talking and drinking before anybody gets to eat anything, so you have to prepare food that won’t be harmed by sitting around in the kitchen for a couple of hours. Luckily, everyone’s so hungry and drunk by the time it arrives, that it always tastes good. So what did we eat? Well, in the spirit of inclusivity and as a result of recipes gleaned from a range of sources over the years, it’s a glorious hodge-podge of different culinary traditions. We had cinnamon and allspice flavoured chard pancakes, a recipe I read years ago in Bon Appetit magazine and which has become one of my Passover standards.
My friend A brought an Italian charoset, redolent of oranges as well as rich with dates. Charoset is one of my favourite things to eat and every year I wonder why I don’t make it year round. This was an especially good version, sweet and jammy.
From Claudia Roden’s invaluable Book of Jewish Food, I made Georgian hake with walnut and tamarind sauce. There was a bit of a Central Asian theme to some of my dishes, and Roden has a great introduction to the foodways of the Georgian Jewish community.
For the meat-eaters, there was Georgian lamb shanks braised in pomegranate and wine. I’m going to post the recipe for this dish separately, as it’s the only one I invented myself for the night.
Closer to my own East-European Ashkenazi background, there was cauliflower and leek kugel, a surprisingly light dish with heaps of dill and parsley.
I also made a red cabbage salad and harissa flavoured quinoa, which you can learn how to cook from wackjob filmmaker David Lynch if you’d like. Technically a grass, quinoa is completely acceptable for passover and makes a nutty alternative to rice or couscous at any time of year. We finished the meal with a decadent flourless chocolate cake, also made by A and the highly addictive caramel chocolate matzah that I make every year. It was a great evening of food, new and old friends, and political debate. As the haggadah says, “May we all live next year in a world of justice and peace. May we all work together to build that world.” Happy Pesach!