6 min read

The Passover Brisket

This week has been very full. In a good way. It was the beginning of Passover: The Jewish festival that commemorates the Exodus. On Monday night we celebrated our first home Seder.

I typically met Seder night with resistance. For the past five Passovers, unwelcome at my father’s table, and over 5 000 kilometres from Michael’s native Montreal, we’d graciously appendaged ourselves to my extended London family. I was acutely aware of the inconvenience. Jewish high-holidays, not unlike weddings, were full of unavoidable family drama. Nerves ran high. Old feuds resurfaced. And grown-up sibling rivalry was smothered by matriarchal intervention. “What if we held our own Seder this year?” I’d suggested to Michael.

***

“How did we end-up six adults, two toddlers, and a seven-month-old baby?” I blame the brisket.

Whilst the Anthony family Seder has always been fish: Roast salmon, gefilte fish, battered cod, battered haddock, even fish cakes. Across the Atlantic, the guest of honour at the Koenka table was undoubtedly brisket. Michael’s Uncle Sidney still owns J&R Kosher Meat, founded in 1952 by Michael’s maternal grandfather: Robert Nemes.

I was half-surprised when Michael said he’d found a guy. “10 pounds of prime American beef,” he announced proudly. Hunting down a good brisket, a cut overlooked in Europe, was no small feat. My husband was a tenacious and resourceful man.

From there things went quite fast. Word got out that Michael was grilling meat. We assembled a motley crew of dinner guests. There was Frans, Kim and baby Grae, our closest Dutch friends; Ben, the Royal Concertgebouw’s first violinist; And 3-year-old Nina, Sophia’s Israeli playdate, with her yoga-teacher father: Asaf. 

***

The days leading-up to the carving of the brisket were filled with excited anticipation, and hard work. I chased down Chametz crumbs with the vacuum cleaner. I baked chocolate-caramel matzah crunch, instead of Florence Greenberg’s traditional cinnamon balls. And I made charoset, a sweet relish made with fruit, nuts and spice.

My charoset was autobiographical. The ingredients included thinly-sliced Granny Smith apples, to which I lost a piece of my little finger; Maple syrup from Quebec, a nod to Canadian heritage; And Dutch speculaas spice, a tribute to our new homeland. 

The eve before Passover, as we shaped matzo balls and shelled dozens of hard-boiled eggs, Sophia eavesdropped from the second floor landing. I could catch a glimpse of her baby locks through the hallway window. “Go to bed!” Michael yelled amused, trying to sound serious.

Finally, Monday morning arrived. I biked to KNSM eiland to buy flowers, whilst Michael retrieved the beast. She’d been brining in rosemary and thyme, bay leaves, salt and peppercorns for two days; and took up the entire lower-shelf of our family fridge.

By the time I got home, the outdoor barbecue was ablaze. “Get the sear darker!” my husband’s Southern buddy instructed on WhatsApp. Satisfied, Michael transferred our braised Passover dinner to the upstairs kitchen. The intoxicating scent of fried beef fat followed him, permeating the courtyard.

With the brisket in the oven for the next six hours, Michael threw together the sides, and I fussed over finding enough chairs, hagaddahs, and forks.

I’d also spent weeks embroidering a matzah cover. An ambitious project I finished only one hour before dinner.

***

Our little kitchen, Seder night.

Our dinner table set-for-eight, had been extended for the first time. It stood ceremoniously dressed in a crisp white tablecloth. The garden bench was propped against the kitchen wall, decked in vibrant cushions. Guests arrived, candles were lit, hands were washed.

Little Nina sat momentarily, perched on her Ikea step-stool, then ran off with Sophia. Minutes later, the mischievous toddlers returned giggling from the lounge. They seemed intrigued by our singing:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,

Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand,

Let my People go…”

Fingers were plunged in wine, glasses were filled then spilled, more hands were washed. “…there’s maple syrup in the charoset!” I said. Ben’s eyes gleamed. “…and speculaas spice.” Frans grinned.

It was finally time to eat. 

***

Michael carved ginormous slices of brisket. The room went silent in awe. Meat collapsed on our plates soaked in puddles of rich gravy.

I disappeared to whip cream for “The Pavlova.” When I returned, I interrupted a debate between Asaf, Ben, Michael and Frans: “Was a tribe named after Joseph?” As I poured more kosher wine, the conversation shifted joyously to the democratisation of classical music. I smiled, layering meringue with whipped cream, sliced mango, papaya, kiwi, and passion fruit.

“Michael knocked us out with the brisket, your pavlova was the final blow!” Nina’s father said satisfied. Everyone concurred, groaning as they leaned back. “We make a great team,” I grinned.

The toddlers ran in circles, their mouths smeared in chocolate, and the Seder came to an end. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we toasted.

***

The next morning, as I wiped down the kitchen, I felt content. I finally understood the true meaning of Passover. It wasn’t about enslavement, it was about finding “Freedom.” I’d embraced my Jewish identity: I’d let go of archaic customs and created meaning. I no longer wanted to belong elsewhere. Our beautiful family was more than enough!

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