Ritual and preparation

I don't know about you, but my life has been so busy lately that I've had little time to really think about the meals I've been cooking. Most are made simply and in haste. Okay, I have chicken breasts and a bottle of salsa. Great, that goes in the oven, chop up a salad and yup! dinner and leftovers for lunch. Whew!

While this is tasty and generally healthy (I'm trying to not eat like an idiot) I miss the time and attention cooking can take. The step-by-step nature of it. The linear acts that lead to completion. It's a comforting kind of ritual that binds me to patience, to time, to doing one thing at a time. We connect to ritual time in many ways (prayer, meditation, doing the same thing every day as get ready for work). I find it through cooking.

I had a chance to engage in this careful kind of cooking recently in honor of Passover. For those of you who may not know, the Passover Seder requires several ritual foods that are eaten in a specific order and that have specific meanings. There is also a meal served two-thirds of the way through that often has traditional elements.

The Seder plate includes, among other things, charoset (a sweet mixture of fruit, spices and wine), matzo, the sacrifice (a shank bone) and maror (bitter herbs). In the preparation of these three items I found my connection to ritual time again.

Charoset represents the mortar of the First Temple, that which holds Judaism together. It's also yummy. Chopped apples, nuts, a healthy splash of Manischewitz wine (very sweet stuff) and ton of cinammon. Mix it together and you have ritual sweetness. Mmmm. This year my step-daughter made the charoset; I talked her through the process and I was so aware of the generations of women smiling behind me as I passed this knowledge on. The crisp-thunk of the knife through the apple. A cloying sip of Manischewitz (I hate it, she loves it). The ancestral memory of spice routes as cinammon wfts through the kitchen. The richness of walnuts, modifying texture and taste. All tossed together to represent something greater than their whole.

The shank bone is roasted. I always admire the smallness of the joint and give thanks to the small, leaping animal who died so we did not, so we can remember how fortunate we are. As it roasts the house is filled with the scent of lamb, something rare and rich to my immigrant forebearers. I roast it until the flesh clings onto the bone as an afterthought, reminding us of the pain of this sacrifice. There is a midrash in which the angels sing when God kills the first born children as the last and most terrible of the ten plagues. God castigates the angels for singing, saying "They too are my children and my creation. Their depth is cause for weeping not for joy." And so the shank bone is a silent witness to sacrifice in the name of freedom.

And the last, maror, is my favorite moment of ritual time in preparation for Passover. The bitter herbs represent our bitterness over enslavement. I use horseradish. When I buy the root it's long, dirty, ragged with green tendrils. As I scrub away the soil then begin to peel it my eyes water over its pungency and I can't help but touch my tongue to its burning white. It always sears. I chop it as finely as I can. I ignore the salt tears that fall into the bowl. I imagine generations of grandmothers watching me in silent approval.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer


AlwaysJoy said…
great post! I am glad you and C were able to have that time together!

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