In the weeks leading up to Passover, North Shore kitchens are a flurry of activity. Ketchup, ginger ale, and onion soup are poured into a bowl to season brisket. Matzah cake meal and potato starch are sifted together through a mesh bottom sieve to make a Pesach sponge cake. And for the haroset: almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, raisins and dried dates are put in a blender and then soaked with Manischewitz wine.
For four North Shore women, Passover is a holiday of food and memories intricately intertwined with one another, full of tastes and smells that transport them to different times and places.
Laura Goodman, of Marblehead, cooks a Pesadich sponge cake recipe passed down from her Aunt Bertha. “I love it because it’s written in my mother’s handwriting,” said Goodman, whose mother Thelma Finger, owned RSVP Thelma on Atlantic Avenue in Marblehead. “As a child, my mother would greet four children at the door and tell us to walk lightly because she’s got a sponge cake in the oven. A doctor moved into town, and his wife happened to walk into [my mother’s] shop, and said that it was going to be her first Pesach away from home. So my mother did what any good Jewish mother would do – she said, ‘Come by my house – I want to make a sponge cake for you for Pesach. My mother made a lot of friendships that way, and she handed down that to me.”
Goodman’s seder table is like a culinary tour of the North Shore, from present-day Marblehead, all the way back to the Chelsea of her mother’s youth. “Almost all my Pesach recipes I collected from other people on the North Shore,” she said. “There’s brisket, my friend Judy’s popovers … I make Karen Madorsky’s tzimmes every year, I make Marilyn Moses’s brownie recipe … gefilte fish – my mother called it doctored-up gefilte fish, and I finally found a recipe called ‘doctored-up gefilte fish.’ You end up cooking the gefilte fish – you don’t just dump it in the jar. I don’t make it from scratch, but [my mother] did. She used to tell stories of when there was a carp in her bathtub. She grew up in Chelsea and it’s true, that’s what they did – they bought the fish, and they brought it home, and it lived in the bathtub for a day until they got ready to fillet it.”
Today’s intricate Passover desserts remind Susan Wolper, a retired teacher and administrator from Beverly, how much seders have changed since she was young. “I was talking to [a friend] and we were saying how different things are today, how different foods are when we were kids,” said Wolper. “You had sesame candy, and jelly candy, and that was the extent of your desserts because there was nothing elaborate in those days. While all the people were having Easter chocolate bunnies and everything else, we would sit there and look out the window, but we weren’t allowed to have any of it.”
Now, with thousands of Kosher-for-Passover items available, and a massive Passover aisle at Stop & Shop in Swampscott, the sky’s the limit. “Now we’re not hurting for anything – we have the chocolate mousse cakes, kiss torte, we have brownies, all things that are Pesadich, because so many more things have been accepted into the seder.” These days, Wolper puts out brownies made with bittersweet chocolate, margarine, and either matzah meal or matzah farfel.
In recent years, oranges and rice have found their way onto Ashkenazi seder plates because many Ashkenazim have taken on Sephardic customs for Passover. Dina Davidyan, an Israeli of Romanian descent now living in Beverly who is married to Eli Davidyan, an Israeli of Persian descent, embraced the Sephardic Passover customs many years ago. There are several differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi seders: while traditional Ashkenazi seders ban rice outright, Sephardic seders feature two different kinds of rice, which are incorporated into a fried tzimmes. Instead of gefilte fish, Sephardim enjoy a cow’s tongue stew with wine, potatoes, and onions. “You wouldn’t even know it’s a tongue, it’s so soft,” said Davidyan. The matzah ball soup broth is dense and creamy and yellow, as opposed to clear and watery, and lettuce is used instead of parsley to dip into salt water. During the singing of Dayenu, everyone taps each other with large scallions to imitate the lashes of Egyptian whips.
“You should see the Ashkenazi who come to my house for the first time – they are shocked,” said Davidyan.
For Davidyan, Passover in Beverly is a world apart from Pesach in Israel. Davidyan misses the communal festivity and camaraderie of Israeli Pesach. “If you go to Israel, you’d be shocked,” she said, her voice breaking. “Rosh Hashanah and Passover, you stand in the middle of town and you will see everybody – the houses will open up, the doors will open up … people are coming out with trays and with pots, and it’s such a phenomenon. Imagine on seder night, all your neighbors are having a seder night, and everybody has people that come over. Everybody’s carrying something, everybody’s dressed up; some people come out, some people come in – it’s beautiful.”
Guests at Mona Pessaroff’s seder in Peabody may not whack each other with scallions, but they do wear masks and sport finger puppets. “Even if it’s all adults, I have masks for the plagues, and I have finger puppets for the plagues, just to make it fun,” she said.
Pessaroff, who works at the North Suburban Jewish Community Center in Peabody and was married to the late Cantor Sam Pessaroff of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, cooks her mother-in-law’s sweet potato casserole, her maternal grandmother’s toasted farfel pilaf, and recipes from workshops run by her friend Vicky Morheim, like Sephardic haroset.
“Since my husband passed away 10 years ago, life is different,” she said. “But I do enjoy Passover. I do enjoy the seder once everything is prepared. Passover has always been a season of rethinking. When my kids were young – my children are grown – they loved Passover. It was their favorite holiday … I made a lot of things then that I don’t make now, because it’s just me … but memories of Passover in my house are wonderful.”