Cookbook is the perfect vehicle for a discussion of feminism, ritual and, of course, great food
By Marisa Demarco
Marge Piercy remembers the seders of her childhood, where the rapid-fire Haggadah, read mostly in Hebrew, "had all the emotional content of the directions for installing a DVD recorder." Her book Pesach for the Rest of Us makes itself pretty clear in its first pages—this is not a text for traditionalists.
A sci-fi great and poet, Piercy has created a part-cookbook, part-feminist revision of Pesach (say pay-sakh, with sach pronounced like the Scottish loch). Also called Passover, Pesach is an ancient Jewish holiday, which falls this year on the evening of Monday, April 2. The night's seder, or shared ritual meal, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Central to the holiday is the Haggadah, the story of that exodus retold, though Piercy includes in her cookbook bits of her own evolving haggedah; beautiful poems on food and symbolism, personalized by surrounding commentary.
She's also added some things to her seder plate, a traditional platter of foods used to impart themes of the holiday. Piercy includes an orange as a representation of those who have been left out of traditional Judaism (women, lesbians and gay men). "Clash if you need to. Roll if you must. / Center the plate about your glow," she writes for the orange.
Piercy's feminism is pragmatic, folded gently into everyday considerations of preparation time versus taste and significance. Similarly, her recipes are written with smarts and come across like verbal directions from a familiar cooking guru in your family. She includes specifics on when she usually likes to carry out directions, as well as loose orders like "moisten more matzoh if you need more."
She's also well aware of Pesach's many requirements of women, particularly in kosher preparations. She's very careful not to demean any of the extensive sanitizing work, noting that for some women it carries historical resonance. But, she writes, if women are truly Jews, they need not be exiled to the kitchen.
The book is beautifully written, occasionally funny and always approachable, but who would expect anything else from the author of He, She and It? Piercy's discussion of a woman's involvement in the ritual of holiday gathering, religious or otherwise, is relatable for a person of any background. And what more appropriate vehicle for such a discussion than a cookbook?
She writes of the political underpinnings of Pesach, which underscore the spiritual. When listing the Ten Plagues, Piercy tacks on modern plagues. For instance, "frogs" is traditional, and "froglessness, poisoning our environment" is contemporary. In this way, exploitation, AIDS, racism and genocide, among other epidemics, are acknowledged. She's added a discussion of slavery after the plagues, including an examination of what enslaves us individually. This revision, Piercy knows, isn't for everyone. "Some people do come just to eat," she writes.
"Borrow" these recipes and modified traditions from her. Build your own ritual, she encourages. This text is meant as a complement, not a replacement.
And just as she's remodeled the ceremony and plate to suit her ideology, she's offered up twists on traditional recipes because, as Piercy writes, "Food sometimes feels like emotion made edible."
Passover Egg Salad
This egg salad can sit happily in its dressing while the first part, the longest part, of the Haggadah is being read and discussed. It is an admirable start to the meal. It fulfills the egg and salt requirement and is delicious. Unlike most salads, it is still good the next day, if you have any left over. So as the egg begins the bird, the egg begins our Pesach meal.
Serves 15 to 16
10 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
4 medium cucumbers (or 3 really long ones), peeled and sliced
3 fennel bulbs, tender white parts only, sliced
Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
Good virgin olive oil to taste
Kosher salt to taste
1) Mix the slices of egg, cucumber and fennel together in a big, pretty bowl. 2) Make the dressing. This is kind of a joke, as some lemons are very juicy and some are miserly with their juice. So just juice 1/2 a lemon at a time, stir into the olive oil and taste. Add lemon juice until you can taste it, but it should never overwhelm the oil. Salt to taste and pour over the salad.
Sweet Potato Kugel
Remember that you can adapt many recipes at Pesach [for] staying vegetarian. Here’s a less traditional potato kugel made with sweet potatoes.
Makes 9 3-inch squares
4 to 6 sweet potatoes (depending on size), peeled
3 apples, cored
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup matzo meal
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3 cardamom pods, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1) Preheat oven to 375° F. Grate the sweet potatoes, apples and carrots by hand or pulse them until minced in a food processor. Place in a large bowl.2) Add the remaining ingredients and mix together. Pour into a 9-by-9-inch pan or a loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is brown and crisp.
Matzo with Cottage Cheese #2
Stale matzo is not the world’s most exciting nosh, so I recommend using it up. Here’s a motzo dairy dessert.
Serves 6 to 8
4 matzo crackers
Lukewarm water for soaking (optional: you can add a little white wine to the water)
1 1/2 pounds of cottage cheese (I like small-curd, low-fat cottage cheese, but you can use any kind)
1/2 cup raisins or sultanas
2/3 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups milk
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1) Preheat the oven to 375° F. Soak the matzo one at a time in lukewarm water. Remove them carefully, press them gently between paper towels to remove excess moisture. 2) Combine the cottage cheese, raisins, 1/3 cup of the sugar and cinnamon. 3) Oil a 9-inch square baking pan. Place 1 soaked matzoh in the pan. Cover with 1/3 of the cheese mixture. Continue layering, ending with the matzoh. 4) In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, milk, orange zest and juice, salt, and remaining 1/3 cup sugar until smooth and well blended. Pour the mixture over the matzo. Bake for 1 hour, or until brown.
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