Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Case of the Passover Potato

If you know the story of Passover, skip to the second paragraph. If not, read this paragraph first. Passover is the Jewish Holiday when the elders in the family retell the Biblical story of Exodus to the guests gathered around the table. The process of telling the story is called a Seder, and unless you are very Orthodox and don’t deviate from the “script,” each family has their own traditions when it comes to conducting the Seder and the specific recipes used for various traditional foods served. The Exodus story is told in two parts – before and after a huge holiday meal. Foods used to represent various aspects of the story are pictured in many editions of the Hagaddah, the book that contains the story. One ritual is the use of a small dipping bowl filled with salt water to represent the tears of the slaves. Green vegetables are to be dipped into the water so all those hearing the story can be reminded of the tears the Israelites shed while they were slaves. The dipping part occurs almost at the outset of the 1-5 hour Seder – the length depending on the traditions of each family and how many details of the Passover story they retell. And now to my anecdote.

When I was little, I was always confused because my grandmother used a boiled potato for the green vegetable we dipped into the salt water. My Hagaddah had a picture of parsley for the green vegetable, yet I placed a potato in my bowl of salt water before eating it. I was glad we had the potato instead of parsley because that tasted yucky when raw.

My mother and aunts continued to serve the potato at their Seders after my grandmother passed away. The first time I shared the Passover holiday with non-immediate relatives was after I was married and moved to Florida. It was then I learned that all my new Floridian Jewish friends served a real green vegetable – usually celery or parsley. No one ever heard of serving a potato for a green vegetable. Curious me phoned my older sister who was then living in D.C. I asked why our family used potatoes, and she explained with complete authority that “Grandpa and Nanny were from Poland and they probably had no fresh green vegetables to serve during Passover – it was still winter. They probably used the potato as a substitute and continued the tradition in this country.”

Her answer made sense. And since it was my job to peel the potatoes and my average Seder had 20-30 people, I felt no guilt in messing with my Nanny’s Passover menu if it meant less work for me. I stopped serving potatoes and started serving celery. Unlike my mother and grandmother, I had no help in the kitchen while preparing all the other foods to be eaten. My brother, who flew down from NY with his family for the holiday, complained bitterly that I was not respecting a family tradition. I told him if he wanted potatoes, he was welcome to peel them and wash the pot after they were cooked. That incident occurred about 35 years ago, but his wife still serves the potato at their Seders.

Last week, my cousin, 7 years my senior, informed me that my sister was wrong. First she reminded me that my grandmother came to this country as a toddler and my grandfather was around 14 – which blew my sister’s Poland theory of what my grandparents served in Poland. Then my cousin explained that my grandmother served the potato because all the men (usually 5-7)) were coming to the Seder from work and were hungry. She wanted to fill them up so they wouldn’t be cranky from hunger after a day’s work and would be able to “last” until the meal was served – at least an hour after the dipping in the salt water ritual. (In those days guests would not dare to tell the Seder leader to read faster because they were hungry.) My cousin then told me she hasn’t served potatoes in years – she places a plate of cut up vegetables for her guests to dip and nibble until the meal.

I repeated this story to a friend. She said, “Okay, then why did my grandmother serve the potatoes?”

Probably for the same reason as mine. Unfortunately, this is one question we can’t Google.

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