One of the beauties of marrying into a family that’s culturally different from your own is getting to experience unfamiliar customs and celebrations first-hand. As a Chicana who grew up in Norwalk and went to Catholic schools, I never knew much about Judaism until I met my husband, a Jewish guy who was raised in the Midwest. After almost 13 years of marriage, I’m still no expert on the religion, but I have had the opportunity to participate in some of its traditions, from attending Shabbat services and observing Hanukkah to eating my mother-in-law’s delicious kugel and, perhaps my favorite, celebrating Passover.
At this point, I’ve been to a few different types of seder meals. Some have been quite solemn and serious while others have been more casual and lighthearted. There’s something to be said for both approaches, but the last few years, my family has been attending a seder meal best characterized as the latter, hosted by my husband’s cousin Kay Hartman and her husband Jack.
Kay is a true gourmet—she’s an expert on L.A.’s culinary scene and many of its chefs, has traveled the world in search of the best global cuisine (later this year, she’s going across the U.S. to dine at four of the country’s most highly acclaimed restaurants) and is easily one of the best home cooks I’ve ever encountered. Once, as a bon voyage gift to my husband and me before we left for a trip to Paris, she prepared a multi-course French lunch featuring one of the most outstanding Nicoise salads I’ve ever eaten (and I went to Nice on that trip).
Kay’s cooking, along with the fact that her wine-drinking family is incredibly fun and welcoming, of course, is what keeps us so excited to come back year after year. There’s also a new element of intrigue: She’s begun weaving Jewish traditions from other countries into her own celebrations. Two years ago, she guided us through an Italian seder and, this year, she introduced us to Greek Passover.
The Italian dinner was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had. In true Kay form, she created a menu for the Pesach Italiano that included interesting tidbits about many of the foods. For instance, we learned that eggplant used to be considered a Jewish food in Italy until the 20th Century, and in the words of writer Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook, La Scienza in Cucina e L’arte di Mangiar Bene, it was “abhorred” until that time. And did you know that many believe that Italian Jews were the first to eat artichokes?
This year’s Greek menu was sparked by a spinach-and-matzo pie recipe that she had spotted in an issue of Gourmet. For a year, Kay researched Greek traditions using two main sources: The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicolas Stavroulakis and Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish family recipes from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes by Stella Cohen. For the meal, traditional Ashkenazi seder staples were replaced by Greek ones—gefilte fish was traded for a Rhodian dish of fish in rhubarb sauce while roast lamb, baked under a pile of tomatoes and green onion, from Komotini subbed for brisket. A flavorful stew of chicken with eggplant was also part of the meat course. Happily, matzo ball soup was still served because it also shows up on some Greek tables, although Greek Jews refer to it as Ashkenazi Passover Soup.
On the dessert table were some scrumptious masa de vino (Passover cookies, flavored with Greek dessert wine); tangy dollops of apricot sweet paste; and meringues made with mastic, a gummy resin that has a slightly woodsy flavor and is only found on trees on the Greek island of Chios. The most fascinating of the bunch was the baklava made from a Hanian Passover recipe that replaced phyllo dough with matzo. Certainly heartier than any baklava I’ve tried—it turns out that nuts, honey, and matzo actually work quite well together, ending the meal on the sweetest of notes.
Already eyeing next year’s seder, Kay is considering either an Iraqi or Syrian menu, though she says Morocco also intrigues her. Her brother Mark, who leads the seder service every year, also has her thinking about Cuba, but she says that, ultimately, the decision depends on resources available to properly research the traditions of each region.
“After the Italian seder, people at the table started to request that I do other countries,” Kay says. “I think it’s fun and interesting to explore what Jews in other parts of the world are doing, and clearly the family is enjoying it. Similarly, when I travel, I will often visit synagogues to see how traditions are different from the ones I grew up with.”
For someone like me, who didn’t grow up with any Jewish traditions, I feel like I’ve hit the cultural jackpot, learning about Jewish-American Passover customs (which are vast and encompass not only the practices of Ashkenazi Jews but also Sephardic Jews and their own distinct traditions) as well as those around the world. Through food, no less. I’m already looking forward to next year.