My friends laugh at me for being such an enthusiastic cook of Jewish holiday dishes. True, my background is Orthodox—but Greek Orthodox, not Jewish, despite my younger sister’s confusing the two and telling our whole elementary school we were Orthodox Jews. Our decision to raise children in my husband’s religious tradition, bolstered by our mutual love of cooking, has provided us with a decade’s bounty of roast chickens, sweet-and-sour briskets and flourless chocolate cakes. One of my favorite cookbooks is Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Cooking,” which is truly fascinating as it traces the diaspora of Jewish cooking across the globe. As a bonus, half the recipes are Sephardic, which have most of the Ashkenazi dishes beaten hands down. It’s still Jewish food even if it has spices and flavor, despite my husband’s weak protestations to the contrary.
One of the benefits of cooking in my adopted cuisine—I’m a convert only gastronomically—is that it provides me with a whole new set of holiday meals to pore over, tinker with, and ultimately savor. People often ask me how I find the time to cook, but I think they also want to know why I do it, and also how I find the enthusiasm for it. In truth, we all have some time we could devote to cooking, even if only on weekends; but for many, cooking becomes a dreaded chore rather than the joyful experience we are told we’re supposed to be having by glossy magazines, media scolds and pretty food blogs. And I’m not immune to the drudgery and despair that can set in while providing meal after meal after meal to a family whose enthusiasm for each lovingly prepared dish often doesn’t quite match my own. Picky children’s taste buds, over-scheduled evenings, and the crankiness that sets in after a long day often conspire to turn the pleasant dinner I envision while cooking into something...well, less pleasant.
A holiday meal has the benefit of allowing you to cook for an occasion that has two rare qualities—time and respect—built in. Despite becoming synonymous in popular culture with family bickering and football, Thanksgiving still holds a special place in American family culture, along with Christmas dinner, Easter lunch, a Passover seder or whatever other religious or cultural feasts you celebrate. Even if the religious aspect of your holiday meal has fallen away, chances are your family still sits down together for a couple of traditional meals every year. Although my family doesn’t regularly celebrate Shabbat, Friday night dinner is the Jewish tradition I covet most: sitting with loved ones once a week over a meal that’s both solemn and joyous, simultaneously spiritual and grounded in the reality of family life. Even if I can’t have it weekly, I want that experience as often as I can, and cooking for holidays, whether native or adopted, allows me to.
So as crazy as it may sounds, I encourage you to delve deep into your own tradition—and lacking that, the tradition of someone you love—and create a meal that honors both your own effort in creating it and the effort it can take just to get everyone in the same place, at the same time. Exploring a tradition beyond your own can also be a lovely way to teach your children about other cultures. Spend some time picking the out dishes you want to make; lay the table with good china and a tablecloth; light some candles. You don’t have to slave over a hot stove all day either: the meal can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. The important part is to locate the pleasure in celebrating together. This is what eating is meant to be, at its best—a communal and joyous experience.
What I am cooking for Passover this year: