Brisket Brought Us Together

I grew up after the crinoline and before the slip dress, on propriety's waning edge. When I was little, I wore a dotted-swiss and organdy party dress to Passover Seder at my aunt's house, and I dutifully scanned my patent-leather shoes for nicks while I waited for the service to end. But by the time I graduated to a kilt with matching sweater and knee socks, questioning the status quo had become the politically correct attitude, and so my sister and my cousins and I perfected an array of disaffected expressions to let everyone at the table know that we had far more important things to do.

I fled to college determined never again to endure what I now considered the endless patriarchal ritual of the Seder. I majored in English lit and minored in rejecting the past: All I wanted to know was why it took Grandpa Abe more time to work through the Haggadah than God needed to part the Red Sea and Moses to march our ancestors across it.

Time passed. I wish I could say that the wisdom of years drew me back to belief and observance, but in fact it was brisket. Grandma Ethel's brisket, to be precise, cooked until the tender slices had to be hoisted on a serving spoon lest they break on the tines of a fork, and eaten with molten prunes and chunks of caramelized carrot and sweet potato, all of it coated with a mahogany syrup. Ethel was for the most part a perfunctory cook, known on the other 364 nights of the year for over-cooked vegetables and a serviceable roast chicken. Brisket with tzimmes was her one voluptuous dish, and the only part of my childhood meal that I recalled with favor, aside from the bottomless crystal pitcher of Fanta orange soda.

My preoccupation with brisket unnerved my new and nonobservant husband, Larry, since seven pounds of beef required either guests or a commitment to two weeks of cold brisket sandwiches, and I preferred the former. I tried to reassure him that this would not be a real Seder, just a dinner party with a Seder menu. Okay, we might sing "Dayenu" and rattle off the four questions, but nothing major. I wrote to Grandma Ethel for the recipe, which came down to this: Cover the brisket with water, bring it to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer for two or three hours. Add prunes, carrots, sweet potatoes, salt, and pepper, and continue to simmer. Slice and serve.

It wasn't much to go by. The first two hours were torture, for there is nothing quite so ugly as a big piece of tan meat burbling around in a pot of thin brown liquid. I threw in way too many prunes and vegetables and fretted some more.

When Larry came home from buying wine, he slumped against the front door in disbelief.

"It smells great," he said.

So it did. Ethel had failed to mention faith and patience, two essential ingredients for both a successful brisket and a successful Seder. Somewhere in the middle of hour three, the liquid had begun to turn dark and glossy, and by dinnertime we had a platter of the kind of meat that made our guests get sloppy and lick their fingers.

The following year, one of the couples called to ask if we were doing Passover dinner again-and so this spring we celebrate our 20th Seder, bound to a growing number of friends who want to spend an evening together thinking about how fortunate we are. We began with a handful of childless adults; now we are two dozen adults and ten children, the eldest of whom leaves for college next fall. Many of the guests aren't Jewish, and we work from a radically abridged prayer book. It is an invented, ecumenical ritual.

The menu is etched in stone, like commandments on a tablet, because the polite if reflexive "Can I bring something?" takes on a profound new meaning when three dozen people are coming to dinner in the middle of the workweek. About eight years ago, I handed out the most general of assignments -- please bring a vegetable, a salad, something for dessert -- to the known cooks in the crowd. After a few missteps (homemade gefilte fish is not worth the trouble), we settled on our immutable menu:

Chopped liver for the adults and matzo-ball soup for the kids.

Lots of Italian haroseth, made with chopped apples, dates, raisins, almonds, matzo meal, and, when I remember, a hard-boiled egg.

Lots of horseradish.

Grandma Ethel's brisket.

Roast chicken for the few people who won't be seduced by even great red meat.

Mountains of asparagus, green beans with a raspberry vinaigrette, and roast carrots.

Two salads-one spicy with arugula, the other a cooler dish that's heavy on the cucumbers. A table full of desserts, including fresh and dried fruit, chocolate and vanilla macaroons, and a jam-topped spongecake that nobody eats anymore but was a favorite of a guest who moved away.

It's a totem, that cake: Someone inevitably asks about the departed family when they see it, and we all stand around and reminisce. 

These are not the trendiest preparations on the planet; if they were clothes they would be broken-in jeans and a sweater. But the dishes people bring to the Seder are infused with nostalgia, felt memory, and a passion for family – real, or, like our Seder crowd, concocted --that heighten our senses and make a big noisy dinner into a feast.

Nineteen years ago, Lori learned to make those green beans from the nice lady who lived across the hall from Roy, the man Lori was about to marry. A lifetime ago, Laura watched her mother make chopped liver from scratch and listened to her apologize for one of the ingredients ("Miracle Whip!"); now she makes a vat of it and continues to apologize for the source of its incredibly creamy texture. Lucy is a renowned home cook, but on this night she channels her sophistication into a perfect platter of springtime asparagus with lemon, because it makes the meal harmonious. And I answer the inevitable queries about the roast carrots, descendants of the carrots prepared by both of my grandmas, Ethel and Mattie Ann: "Just olive oil and salt on a jelly-roll pan at four hundred degrees. They get like that all by themselves."

It is the offering, not the intricacy, that counts. The first year that Carolyn joined us, she brought strawberries in a beautiful bowl that she forgot to take home. I returned it a month later, but in subsequent years she forgot to ask and I forgot to remember. Now she brings the fruit in a grocery bag, and the bowl sits out on our kitchen counter all year, waiting. It is our guarantee, our promise of another year, its presence more potent than the pledge we recite ("Next year in Israel") when what we really pray for is next year at the table again, together.

In the kingdom of the heart, where we dine with our friends once each spring, even a strawberry in a particular bowl is a magical dish. The youngest among us reminds us that this night is different from all other nights, and we nod our assent, sure that our collective, cobbled dinner is the best meal on earth. We might as well be right.