Passover is my favorite holiday. For two nights in a row, you get to have big dinners and drink a bunch of wine while thinking about liberation from slavery. This is my cup of tea. Passover starts at sundown on April 18 this year.
To commemorate the liberation of the biblical Jews from slavery there are a number of ritual foods on the seder table. Maror, the bitter herb, is usually ground or slivered horseradish. Maror reminds us of the bitterness of slavery. We eat parsley, reminding us that it is spring, dipped in salt water, reminding us of the tears of our ancestors who were once slaves in Egypt. We eat hardboiled eggs, which go extraordinarily well with salt water and horseradish, as a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple or maybe a representation of the sacrifices Jews used to make at the Temple or maybe just as an ancient spring festival food.
We eat charoset, a wonderful mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine, sometimes adding dates and honey in the Sephardic tradition, on top of matzo. The charoset stands for the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build storehouses for the Egyptians.
We eat matzo, “the bread of affliction”, which must take no more than 18 minutes to make from the time the first water hits the meal until it is pulled out of the oven. It reminds us that when our ancestors fled from Egypt, they had to leave so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise.
The ritual seder plate also includes a roasted shank bone, representative of the lambs we sacrificed to have the angel of death pass over our households. Vegetarians use beets, because they are blood-red.
Lefty Jews may also put an orange on the seder plate. The orange symbolizes the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews in the life of the community. Each person at the seder eats a section of the sweet, round, shared orange.
In my household we have yet another ritual Passover food to remind us that legal slavery still exists in this country. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery for every one except prisoners. It says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” When I was brooding over this one pre-Passover a few years ago, I asked my husband what food we should include in our seder to represent the prisoner-slaves. He ran a prison diabetes support group at the time, so he knew the food they are given to eat. “Coleslaw,” he said. It is the only fresh vegetable offered on the New York State prison menu. So every Passover, we include a dollop of straightforward, bottom-of–the-line coleslaw on our seder plate to remember the two million people in American prisons.
The Coleslaw of Affliction
– One bag of pre-cut cole slaw from your local no-frills grocery store.
You should not go to the farmers’ market for this one, since slaves do not have that luxury.
– 3/4 cup mayonnaise
– ¼ cup white vinegar
Directions: Thin the mayonnaise with the vinegar to make a smooth slurry, adjust as needed. Toss the slurry with the coleslaw, eat with a spork.
There are, of course, many delicious Passover foods: matzo ball soup, macaroons, chocolate covered matzo (my personal favorite). But none of them remind me of sober reality of slavery like my annual serving of cole slaw.