Holiday Memories: A Grandmother’s Tale
I am standing at my white kitchen counter feeding sticky ingredients into a food mixer: clumps of dates, walnut pieces from a cellophane packet, slices of Granny Smith apples, teaspoons of honey, clouds of cinnamon, splashes of orange juice.
At my side is a handwritten recipe, scribbled on a curled sheet of lined and yellowed paper, torn from the kind of exercise book reminiscent of a first-grade primer. My grandmother Estrea Aelion, originally brought the recipe with her in the 1900s from Salonika in northern Greece to Paris and to London, where I was born and raised.
Even though it wasn’t written down for years afterward, it became as much of a family heirloom as the hand-driven Singer sewing machine she also brought along. Finally, just two years ago, it was painstakingly committed to paper by her daughter, my 85-year-old aunt, even though her hand was already shaking from Parkinson’s.
Each year, I make up a large batch about three weeks before Passover. I then divide it and send a portion each in a small plastic container to my daughter in Seattle, my son in Singapore and my granddaughter at college in San Francisco—a modern way of keeping a family tradition alive. The tradition of sending the finished product to family members was started by my grandmother toward the end of her life, when even she began to realize that all the family might never gather in one place again, at least on a regular basis.
The recipe would never have been acceptable for a commercial cookbook because it makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge that we avoid today—measuring ingredients in “pinches” or “boxes” instead of more clearly definable ounces or cups. I have personally learned to overcome this flaw by using the taste test; a taste that, when it’s right, sends me hurtling back 50 years.
“Haroset de Pasech” is the title of this particular recipe, using an equally homemade approach toward spelling that could imply poor French or Ladino with a touch of transliterated Hebrew—the combination folk language of Sefardim from a region that, today, embraces not only northern Greece but parts of Turkey and the Balkan republics, too.
Our particular haroset, which symbolizes the bitterness of the Israelite suffering in Egypt, is only one of a number of traditions that a handful of us struggle to maintain as a touchstone to a fading past. This despite our rational brain knowing that most of these special foods, rituals and even the language itself may die out with us—its final generation.
While our group of Jews remained in a variety of Mediterranean lands following the expulsions from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, much that had been borne out of a hostile Iberian Peninsula remained intact: the ballads our ancestors had sung, the Moorish dishes they had cooked, the language they spoke along with their Spanish-sounding family names.
It was the second scattering, early in the 20th century, that dealt the deathblow to that culture. We became too small to regroup in meaningful numbers in this country, as the East European Jews have done. How many times in recent years have I had to explain that we are not artifacts from dusty history books. A few of us are still around, following traditions already being taught as if they were extinct.
We are doubtless not alone. This has surely happened to countless other “niche” minorities over the centuries, for whom the melting pot became more like a lethal brew. Thus, for me, this kitchen moment—a prelude to our broader Passover celebrations that will begin just days from now—stirs a mixture of sorts. A churning of emotions that course through my veins each and every time I repeat the process: recipe as ritual, cooking as comfort, struggling in its death-defying dance to bind me to a continuum that helps validate my place and my identity even though the link grows weaker by the year.
So it is as a source of comfort that I conjure up the sight of my nona, my grandmother, at her ceramic mixing bowl, doing what I am doing as if she were standing right next to me right now. She would probably look astonished to see me mixing and stirring by hand just the way she did. For I was never particularly interested in such “old-fashioned” pursuits—that is, before I became a grandmother too.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it will be my two granddaughters who will care.
Better to believe it will happen, in order to enjoy this quiet moment in my sun-dappled kitchen.
Haroset from Greece
Makes enough for at least 15-20 people at a Seder table—maybe even more.
1-2 pounds fresh dates, pitted, or 2 boxes pitted dates
3/4 pound raisins
1-2 pounds shelled, toasted walnuts
2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Grated rind of one lemon
1/2-3/4 cup fresh orange juice (or 3 fresh oranges and scoop out pulp with juice)
2 tablespoons medium or sweet sherry
To Toast Walnuts:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Turn off. Place and scatter walnuts in shallow baking pan. Leave in oven for about a half hour. Cut dates into small pieces and take out stones (if not already pitted). Place in mixing bowl, along with the raisins, soften by soaking in boiling water for about 15 minutes. Drain well and squeeze free of water. Take skin off apples and cut into slices.
Place walnuts in food processor and mix until they have crumbled almost into a powder. In small amounts, slowly add dates, raisins, apples, orange juices (little at first), sherry, cinnamon. The combination should end up as a very thick paste. If it is too dry, add a little more orange juice. If it is too thin add a few more walnuts, along with raisins or dates. Warning: the ratio of dates to walnuts should be about equal. Leave at room temperature for about a day to ferment.