Passing Over the Nuts of Death

By Marjorie Ingall

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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Last year I wrote about how Passover turned me into a grown-up. My parents moved into an itty-bitty apartment, the tradition of their dueling Seders ended (let’s call it a draw), and Jonathan and I took on the hosting mantle. Well, half the mantle. Auntie Nancy bravely hosts the entire extended clan on Day 2, and her Invasion-of-Normandy-esque brilliant planning for waves of hungry Jewish hordes crashing onto the beaches of her Upper East Side home (runaway metaphor alert!) makes our small-scale efforts look about as impressive as coasting through a McDonald’s Drive-Through. Still, we try. But the amount of effort and preparation explains why I’m writing this column now rather than in two weeks. At this very moment, I’m planning and plotting like a chaleria.

The entire enterprise has given me new respect for my mom. (In truth, the real indication that you’ve become a grown-up is realizing how impressive your mother is.) Every year she made and served a meal so good you’d never know it was kosher for Passover, created some kind of educational yet (relatively) fun activity (such as “The People’s Court” featuring the Trial of Pharaoh) and led us in the traditional Ingall family rendition of “There’s No Seder Like Mom’s Seder” (sample couplet: “There’s no people like Jew people/ They smile when they are flogged!”). She didn’t flinch the year my brother, in a hippie phase, insisted on bringing a blender and a thicket of wheatgrass and spent 20 precious Seder-minutes whirring up electric-green smoothies that tasted like mulch. I’m lucky if I can get the asparagus and the yams on the table at the same time without snarling at someone.

I suppose my appreciation for my mother’s and aunt’s heroic efforts fits with the trend in Seder-dom of sending shout-outs to girl-power during the holiday. We put our oranges on the Seder plate (because a woman belongs on a bima like an orange belongs on a Seder plate, hyuk hyuk); we set out Miriam’s cup; we find feminist poems and heroine-narratives. We talk about Miriam protecting her wee brother Moses and leading her people in song and dance; spin Pharaoh’s daughter adopting the floating, lost baby in the reeds; sing the praises of the noble midwives Shifra and Puah who ignored Pharaoh’s infanticidal decree; applaud in an approving cross-cultural manner Moses’s non-Hebrew wife encouraging her man to lead his people. In short, we talk a good game about chick-empowerment. But I note that at most of these you-go-girl Seders, the people in the kitchen all have two X chromosomes, same as always. Funny how that works.

Here’s where I admit that my Passover situation isn’t typical. I have a husband who cooks, cooks well and cooks happily for vast numbers of people. (When he was a dewy-eyed geek at the dawn of the dot-com revolution in San Francisco, he was famous for his Thursday Night Dinners, weekly events in which he thought nothing of making latkes for 100 ravenous Doc Marten-wearing, frizzy-haired raver-coders.) This year, he’ll be making Lean and Mean Texas Barbecued Brisket from his battered, well-loved copy of Steven Raichlen’s “How to Grill.” He’ll also make matzo ball soup (this year I’ll make sure he doesn’t put chopped jalapeños in the matzo balls, a past innovation that was certainly, um, innovative). I’ll handle the side dishes and ask Mom to bring her famous flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sauce. We’ll throw a slab of Texas barbecued tofu on the grill for Andy’s husband, Neal, and Josie will have her favorite dinner, an inhuman amount of broccoli, accompanied by her sing-song narration, “Here’s a little broccoli tree, walking down the street minding its own business, when pop, it falls into Josie’s mouth!”

But back to the meat-maven husband. I don’t mean to rub it in (but that reminds me, the rub for the brisket really is something). I assure women whose husbands do not know how to butter their own matzo that having a husband who is a kitchen whiz is a mixed blessing. He barks at me about my crappy knife skills (which are crappy even after I actually took a knife-skills course — a birthday present from him, naturally — at the Institute of Culinary Education), rolls his eyes at my inability to clean up as I cook and raises his eyebrows at my total cluelessness in estimating how long it’ll take to get dinner on the table. He’s a feminist, but he still has Male Answer Syndrome.

Still, after years of cooking together, we have kitchen rhythm. As a result, I’m much more relaxed about entertaining big groups. As I get older, I’m more able to shrug off my husband’s perfectionism and accept that I don’t have to be as skilled a multitasker as my mom. And in some ways it’s easier to host than to be a guest. I don’t have to stress about Josie; her toys are all here. I can just put her to bed in her own crib when she’s tired. I don’t have to worry about nuts, the evil hidden ingredient in gazillions of Passover foods, which happen to cause death if I eat them. Our Sephardic charoset will be nut-free. Being a grown-up can be fun.

This week is devoted to menu-planning and guest-inviting. (I continue my mom’s tradition of inviting folks who don’t have a Seder to attend.) Next week, I’ll figure out the storytelling. Last year, my friend Judith got Josie a Bag of Plagues, containing a cunning stuffed vibrating louse, a furry black locust, a frog and a cow. (This year, I note that the kit has been expanded to include all 10 plagues! No more need to improvise with a Band-Aid to represent blood or a pair of sunglasses for darkness! You can get the newly complete plush set for your bloodthirsty offspring on judaism.com or at the Workmen’s Circle Bookstore.) Josie happily threw the frog around and spent most of the Seder wearing the Bag of Plagues on her head like a jaunty cloche. This year, I’m going to try to explain the story. But how do you explain killing innocent children? What do you edit out? How come Pharaoh’s a bad guy and a bully, but God isn’t? At Purim, I borrowed a trick from writer Elizabeth Applebaum, who reported on the Jewish Family & Life Web site that she and her husband mess with the Purim tale. They tell their kids Ahasuerus fires Vashti as queen and sends her back to her old job as a cocktail waitress at the Shushan Bar & Grill. Love it. But I’m not sure how to play a much darker story. The narrative I’ve been working on borrows elements from one of Josie’s favorite new (secular) books, “The Day the Babies Crawled Away,” by the brilliant Peggy Rathmann, but I can’t quite get past the fact that in this story, no one rescues the Egyptian babies.

I do know we’ll have plenty of stories, musical instruments and songs. Josie will scream “Shakers! Maracas! Can we sing ‘Pooping on My Potty’?” Next year she’ll be 3, and I think she’ll be in for much more. (Readers, I welcome recommendations of children’s Haggadot.) If I’m a truly loving and wonderful mother, I will try to create a joint Haggada/coloring book for her and teach her the four questions, but I will probably get hysterical trying to make overly complicated recipes from Epicurious.com and wind up locking Josie in the toychest with the Bag of Plagues and some of those vile sugared candy fruit slices. When I let her out, I know she will appreciate Passover as a holiday of freedom.

I’m kidding. Sort of.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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