When Marge Piercy was a little girl, her grandmother set a special place at the Passover seder for Blackie, her cat.
He was a dignified cat, Piercy said. “Blackie sat quietly in his chair while we went through the entire Maggid.
“Grandma told me that when nobody else was here, Blackie ate with a knife and fork. I never saw him do it, but I wondered why he wouldn’t eat that way for me.”
Whether it is the warm memory of Blackie or of her grandmother creating the annual seder in her small Cleveland apartment — setting out her Passover-only dishes, ironing her spotless tablecloth saved for special occasions, polishing the fine silver candlesticks she had brought from Lithuania and especially watching her prepare the traditional Ashkenazi menu — Passover is the prolific poet, novelist and social activist’s favorite holiday.
For years, she has cooked gedempte flaisch mit abricotten (pot roast with apricots) on the first night of Passover to honor her grandmother Hannah Levi Bunnin.
“If I wasn’t honoring the memory of my bubelah, I would probably serve lamb, especially because of its association with Pesach,” Piercy said.
Although she loves re-creating her grandma’s Ashkenazi menu, lately she has added Sephardic chicken soup and Mizrachi charoset because of her fascination with the different food traditions among Jews all over the world. She even has created a special egg salad to eat during the part of the seder that calls for dipping a sprig of parsley and a hard-boiled egg into salt water to symbolize spring and the cycle of life and to mimic the tears of the Jewish slaves under Pharaoh.
Instead of picking from the traditional basket of eggs, her Passover guests eat their eggs mixed with cucumber, fennel, olive oil, lemon juice and salt.
“This happens during the first part of the reading of the haggadah. It’s a time for lively discussion, but it’s long, and people are hungry,” Piercy said. “So I serve this right after the Hillel sandwich. It is satisfying and an admirable start for the meal.”
A fish dish is commonly served after the egg course, and many matriarchs spend the better part of a day making fresh gefilte fish, which is a delight and for which Piercy offers recipes.
For the rest of us, who might not have time or inclination, Piercy offers her version of chopped herring, an easier alternative.
Although she finds Passover the holiday with the strongest personal meaning, every year she tries to make it more relevant to her life and what’s happening in the world. That’s why the haggadah she and her guests read from is not traditional.
Instead of leading the seder from the same book her grandmother used, Piercy has created her own. “It’s 65 percent poetry; it’s been a ‘work in progress’ for decades,” she said.
In 2007 she published “Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own” (Schocken Books), which is filled with phrases and insightful, illustrative poetry from her own haggadah.
In the writing and rewriting of this sacred book, Piercy is aware of the importance of making tradition accessible so that young people turn toward their heritage and not away from it. “At best, the haggadah should create a sense of roots,” she said, “and the seder a feeling of belonging.”
Piercy not only explains why we eat sacred foods matzah, wine, parsley, eggs, bitter herbs, fruit, nuts and honey — all fraught with the drama of the Exodus, when Jewish slaves plunged into the sea as it magically parted and emerged on the other side free men — but also gives us the historical meaning and different ways of thinking about each item.
She also offers alternatives and ways of experiencing the journey, such as taking off our shoes and plunging our feet into the Sea of Reeds or walking outside and gazing at the moon to remind us the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles.
But most striking is the way she enlivens the symbolic items that are placed on the ceremonial seder plate:
- Zeroa is the shank bone of a lamb. In ancient times lambs were sacrificed. The bone is a symbol of struggle and liberation and a reminder that sacrifice is frequently the price of freedom.
- Beitzah is the roasted egg, an additional temple sacrifice. It’s a challenge to roast an egg properly, but Piercy is fond of the flavor and savors her treasure long after the seder is finished.
- Matzah is the bread of haste at the beginning of the journey. Because there was no time to let it rise, it remains inert — the essence of bread in its purist form. Piercy recommends matzah shemura, which is made by hand in Israel and is most like that of the ancient Israelites.
- Maror (bitter herb) is the sorrow of slavery. When we bite into horseradish or the more authentic rue, wormwood or chicory, tears spring to our eyes. We mix it with sweet charoset in the Hillel sandwich, a wish of hope for the future. Piercy also recommends a Passover salad of bitter greens such as arugula, peppergrass, chicory and endive.
- Karpas is a vegetable, usually parsley, representing spring, the seasons of the year and life.
- Charoset was not originally part of the Passover plate but was added by rabbis who wanted something sweet to offset bitter herbs and to serve as a symbol of freedom. There are numerous interpretations of the original fruit, nuts, spices and wine. It’s fun to make more than one charoset to remind us of the diversity of our Diaspora.
Marge Piercy’s Passover Menu
Passover egg salad
Sephardic chicken soup
Passover roast lamb
All the following recipes are from “Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own” by Marge Piercy (Schocken Books).
Passover Egg Salad
Makes 8 servings
¼ cup lemon juice
Salt to taste
½ cup virgin olive oil
Combine the lemon juice and salt. Whisk the olive oil into the mixture until combined.
For egg salad:
5 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
2 medium cucumbers, sliced in circles
1½ fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
In a pretty glass bowl, place the eggs, cucumbers, fennel and shallots. Add the vinaigrette and gently toss.
Makes 4 servings
1 jar (16 ounces) herring snacks in wine sauce
1 matzah, crumbled
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and cut into quarters
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 teaspoon sugar or sweet red wine (optional)
Drain the wine sauce into a small bowl. Add the crumbled matzah to absorb the liquid. Finely chop together the herring, onions from the jar, the fresh onion and the apple. Add the soaked matzah and hard-boiled eggs and chop until thoroughly blended. Add sugar or wine if desired. The mixture is delicious piled on matzah.
Sephardic Chicken Soup
Although Sephardim eat rice during Passover, Ashkenazim traditionally do not. This soup tastes delicious with or without the rice.
Makes 8 servings
1 whole chicken
2 quarts filtered water
2 cups white wine
Bunch of Italian parsley, stemmed
3 medium carrots, halved crosswise
2 onions, quartered
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ to ¾ cup brown rice
2 eggs, beaten
Juice of 1 to 1½ lemons
Put the chicken, water, wine, parsley, carrots, onions, salt, thyme and turmeric in a large pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer for 1 hour. Remove the chicken and vegetables. Slice the meat from carcass, discarding any undesirable pieces.
If desired, add rice to the broth and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, slowly add the lemon juice to the beaten eggs, whisking until thoroughly combined.
Take 1 tablespoon of the hot soup and whisk it into the egg-lemon mixture. Continuing to whisk, add 1 tablespoon at a time until you have about 2 cups. Slowly add the rest of the soup. The secret is to not stop whisking until you return the soup to the pot, along with the chicken and vegetables. Heat over a low flame, being careful not to curdle the eggs.
Cinnamon Lamb (Passover Roast Lamb)
Makes 4 servings
This delicious recipe works equally well with a crown roast of lamb or lamb chops. Feel free to pick and choose among herbs and spices or add a few of your own.
1 3-pound shoulder of lamb
2 cloves garlic, cut in slivers
1 tablespoon almonds or walnuts
1 teaspoon dried or 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried or 3 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
½ to 1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon chili powder
Pinch of cloves
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat the oven to 325. Score the lamb, and place slivers of garlic inside.
Place the almonds, dried parsley, dried mint, cinnamon, chili powder, cloves, salt and pepper in a spice grinder. Pulse until thoroughly mixed. (If using fresh parsley and mint, add them to the mixture after the other items are ground together.) Remove to a medium mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice and olive oil. Stir until the consistency is a thick paste.
Fill cracks in the meat and cover outside with the paste. Let the lamb sit for half an hour in the refrigerator.
Place the lamb in a shallow roasting pan and roast until the interior is slightly pink, about 15 minutes per pound. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.
Makes 3½ cups
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
½ cup almonds and pistachios
½ cup pitted dates
½ cup white figs
¼ cup dried cherries
¼ cup pomegranate seeds
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup cherry or orange brandy, sweet wine, or grape juice
Honey or brown sugar to taste (optional)
Sprinkle the lemon juice over the apples and set them aside. In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. When they have the consistency of a powder, add the nuts, then the apples and dried fruit. Keep a light hand on the pulse button. The consistency should have a bite to it.
Remove the ingredients to a large bowl. Fold in the pomegranate seeds, the brandy, wine or grape juice, and, if desired, the sugar or honey.
Taste the charoset to see whether it is the right blend of sweet and tart. Add honey or sugar for sweetness, lemon juice for tartness. Mix to combine.
Serve in a pretty cut-glass bowl.