Passover Memories Then and Now

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19 Mar 2009

My favorite recipes are those that stand the test of time, especially family recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. Each family has their own special food memories as food has the power to transport us back in time to life’s special occasions and the holidays from days gone by.

When I was a young child, my mother would buy cases of eggs, and boxes and boxes of matzos, matzo farfel, cake meal and potato starch for her Passover cooking and baking. Almost everything she made contained eggs! She made chopped eggs in salt water (a favorite of mine), homemade gefilte fish (never from a frozen roll, G-d forbid), matzo balls that were as puffy as clouds, farfel kigelach, mashed potato kugel, matzo meal latkes, Passover potato knishes and her sweet carrot tsimmis with a knaidel. She never made brisket because she hated it – we had roast chicken instead.

For dessert, she made Pesadik komish broit, jelly or lemon roll, and her light-as-a-cloud sponge cake that used almost a dozen eggs. Leftover sponge cake would be sliced, dipped in egg and transformed into French toast for breakfast. Fried matzo was either fried in schmaltz or butter and no one seemed to worry about their cholesterol levels!

We complain how difficult it is to prepare for Passover, despite the fact that today’s modern kitchens are outfitted with a wide variety of appliances to ease preparation. Disposable foil containers can be used to cook the brisket, turkey and kugels and many people use fancy disposable paper plates and cutlery for large crowds, making cleanup a snap. A huge variety of prepared and packaged foods makes the task easier for those who don’t want to cook – or don’t have the time because they work full time. Supermarket displays showcase a wide selection of exotic fruits and vegetables from all over the world.

Caterers advertise their Passover menus weeks in advance for those who are looking for easier options. Other people close up their kitchens and go on a Passover cruise or make reservations at a hotel offering a special Seder menu to avoid the task of cleaning and cooking for Pesach. So many choices!

You can imagine how fascinated I was when I read this detailed description of Pesach in Israel in the 30’s from Sara Finkel’s heartwarming cookbook: Simply Delicious: Winning Recipes for Every Day and Holidays (Targum). I’ve also included her delicious recipe for Pesach Vegetable Casserole for your enjoyment. Sara writes:

“I have often wondered how my Aunt Esther, who lived with her family in Jerusalem about seven or eight decades ago, managed to prepare for Pesach, not only for her family but for the countless guests who came from many miles around.

There were no refrigerators, gas ranges, or freezers, not to mention food processors, blenders or electric mixers. No one even knew the meaning of the word microwave oven, nor could they in their wildest imagination dream of either an electric dishwasher or clothes dryer. Laundry was done in a washtub in the yard over a scrub board. In order for the family to have clean clothing and clean tablecloths to last the entire holiday it had to be done on the day before Pesach…

Staples were scarce and rations were meager. Fish was considered a luxury, and the lowly potato was expensive. Potatoes were grated, drained and dried and made into potato starch. It was a special treat for a family to get an apple or even an orange. Few vegetables were around – eggplant, squash, and maybe some tomatoes – they were all prepared in many different ways to provide variety to meals and sometimes to replace chicken or fish.

Serious preparations for Pesach began with the approach of the Sukkos season when plump, juicy grapes ripened. Because wine was not yet commercially produced, it was made by almost every household. With feet scrubbed clean, everyone, including the children, happily trampled the juice from the grapes. Sugar was added and the whole lot was poured into barrels to ferment. The results were sweet red wine, white wine, and grape juice.

Even schmaltz was prepared on Chanukah for Pesach because geese were fattest that time of year. Griebene with matzah and a glass of tea was a special evening meal they ate with relish. Russel borsht, left in barrels to age, was relished during Pesach, and eaten along with a plate of boiled potatoes.”

Here are some special dishes that several of my “Pan Pals” will be making for the Seder this year – I thank them all for sharing them with me. I’ve included some vegetarian dishes for your enjoyment as well, including a favorite recipe of mine that is popular for Passover (or any time of year). Enjoy in good health and have a delicious Passover!

Norene Gilletz is a cookbook author, cooking teacher and food consultant based in Toronto, Canada. Her latest book is NORENE’S HEALTHY KITCHEN: Eat YOUR Way to Good Health (Whitecap). For information about her cookbooks, cooking demonstrations and culinary services, call 416-226-2466 or visit her website at