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Ziskend takes charge of breaking the first matzo and hiding the afikomen each year. “It’s no different than you hiding it at your grandmother’s house, except there’s a Secret Service person watching you stash it away. And the house is a bit bigger,” he said. Malia and Sasha Obama recite the Four Questions. They also hunt down the afikomen in exchange for small gifts — like a rubber chicken for their dog, Bo, and bottles of nail polish — instead of money.
“It’s a great honor, but it’s become like [a] Seder we have at home,” Ziskend said.
The White House staff adds important touches to preserve that atmosphere. There is, for example, the 1950s-era Seder plate complete with illustrations from Chaudhary’s mother-in-law, instead of a fancy silver or crystal option.
But the most notable staff effort is the food. The menu consists of recipes submitted by Seder participants. Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, re-creates them, incorporating produce from the White House garden when possible.
“It is always challenging to duplicate a grandmother’s recipe,” Comerford said. “Their years of expertise cooking a traditional recipe passed down from generation to generation is quite tough to duplicate.”
According to Lesser, Comerford succeeds. The first time he tucked into his family’s carrot soufflé at the Seder, it was a “jarring experience,” Lesser recalled. “I’m sitting in the dining room of the White House, with portraits of first ladies and a beautiful setting and I had a flashback to the house I grew up in.”
Previous Seders have also featured a roast chicken breast recipe from Ziskend’s grandmother, and a rich matzo ball soup recipe from Patricia Winter, the mother of Seder attendee Melissa Winter, a deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser to the first lady.
This year’s menu will include brisket and kugel, along with new matzo ball soup and haroset recipes. The haroset recipe, courtesy of Patricia Winter, includes apples, walnuts, ginger and Manischewitz wine. “Of course,” said Melissa Winter, “[my mother] thinks I should go down to the White House kitchen before the Seder to taste it and make sure it’s just right.”