My grandfather's seder

In our family, food is divine.

Published April 18, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

I grew up in a godless home.

It was a Jewish household, but in many ways our Judaism was expressed by the conspicuous absence of all things Christian: no church, no candy egg hunts, no confessionals, no cookies by the chimney. And while we couldn't sing reindeer songs, we didn't attend synagogue either -- not even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana. If Judaism is considered both a race and a religion, my family has always been more the color Jewish than the covenant. Nevertheless, no one ever dared to serve a honey-baked ham. And we certainly never had a Hanukkah shrub -- an object my mother considered to be merely a bastardized version of a Christmas tree.

But if my family lacked an organized religion, it was remarkably full of the ritual of life. We all believed in an unspoken liturgy of family love. And we all shared an unquestionable reverence for food. The only Jewish holiday we observe is Passover. We converge for this custom each year not out of worship to any deity nor commitment to any imposed tradition. We pay homage to Passover because it involves dinner. In my family, food is divine.

I started cooking small concoctions when I was 8 years old, the same year that my mother was diagnosed with stage-four, terminal cancer. These minor culinary contributions seemed to cheer my father and, for me, comfort food took on an entirely different meaning. I decided that food carries the energy of the person who cooks it, and therefore food made with love will always taste good. So I started preparing little meals of "medicine" for my mom. I put wishes in her food, focusing every bit of my childhood capacity for belief into those creations. The remission of her disease years later was nothing short of a miracle -- and for a while I really believed it was my "anti-cancer soups" that had cured her.

As I grew older, cooking became one of my greatest passions. I even worked in kitchens professionally for a while. My sisters still love to test me at the table. "OK, what's in this?"

I'll slowly eat a spoonful, squint and pretend to struggle as I decipher the flavors. "Well, there's acorn squash, some crhme franche, vegetable stock, a hint of fennel, and oh yes, marjoram." I can taste almost any dish and deconstruct the ingredients. But recipes are a bit like Latin -- once you know the basics, you can break down the larger message.

Now, cooking is my hobby and my art. To me, a good dough holds all the potential that a mound of clay contains for a potter. I can weave gorgeous sauces with my whisk, and use a Kitchen Aid mixer as both a stone and a chisel. Sometimes I cook because I wish to paint my apartment with the scent of warm bread, or to simmer away boredom or loneliness. Sometimes I cook to satisfy the people I love. But I suppose I also cook because it is my own kind of faith. I get to make something beautiful, tangible -- and edible. And like a Catholic, who can eat a wafer to absorb the body of Christ, I cook because food can be transcendent. One is literally what one eats -- the food breaks down and becomes the cells of the body -- so I believe you should be nourished with food made from inspiration.

The way I see it, a good meal tells a story. And if you take dogma out of the equation, Judaism revolves mostly around storytelling, too. Jews believe you have to tell stories so that you don't forget the past, because forgetting is worse than dying. So after my grandfather died, the most fitting tribute I could imagine was to prepare a Passover dinner in his honor.

Abraham Solomon Goldman who, as I used to laugh to myself, possessed the most Jewish name in America, was appropriately and devoutly religious. He prayed every morning and walked to temple every Saturday for the Sabbath. In keeping with the Jewish teachings, he never proselytized his beliefs to us -- except when it came to eating. To my grandfather, righteousness was determined by the kind of food a person ate. He never asked me to join him at synagogue, but he always encouraged me to keep kosher. If he caught me with a cheeseburger he would click his tongue and say, "It's not God's food."

At our seder -- which means "order" in Hebrew -- my grandfather had always been the banquet M.C. He wouldn't let us eat before blessing the matzo or raising a proper kiddush cup. Through his guidance, I learned to see the importance of tradition, the significance of retelling and remembering the Passover lore -- the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish story. So I decided that a year after his death, at our Passover dinner we would remember the story of my grandfather.

Like most narratives, a sound meal needs some structure. I followed the wheat-free rules of the holiday and I also made the meal completely vegetarian to ensure that it would have been kosher enough for my grandfather to enjoy had he still been with us. As I kneaded the matzo meal into a sticky paste to make dumplings for our soup, I remembered ancestral slaves turning mortar into the bricks that made the Pyramids. I served sweet potato gnocchi with roasted red pepper sauce -- the color of fire and strength. Grilled asparagus and radicchio represented spring, the season of freedom and renewal. Dessert was a crhme caramel, my own Manna Flan -- because it tasted so sweet you could pretend it fell from heaven. I filled the food with my grandfather's faith, as if it could infuse the rest of the family.

We all took turns reading the Passover story. We sang some Hebrew songs and we raised our glasses of wine to my grandfather and toasted, "L'Chaim," to his life. My own father, the agnostic scientist, winked and said, "Delicious." We sanctified life and legend with my supper. That night religion revealed itself as a background setting to the story of my life and a place setting at my table. My family felt connected to something bigger, back to a time even before my grandfather, back to a very old history and powerful beliefs. That night being Jewish wasn't marked by all the things that I was not. That seder was the finest meal I have ever prepared: It was a eulogy and a commencement all in one dish -- seasoned with nostalgia and savored like hope.

By Adria Popkin

Adria Popkin, a former pastry chef, works as a proposal writer in Salon's sales department.

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