When the Israelites were running from the Pharaoh back in Egypt, they were running! Unprepared, no time to carefully choose what to put in their carry-on bag, they grabbed their bread before it had risen, and off they dashed. Three thousand years later, it's perplexingly counterintuitive to me that, in the weeks leading up to the holiday that commemorates the exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, we Jews enslave ourselves by intensively, seriously, and doggedly preparing for Passover! We take everything out of our cabinets, jettisoning cereal and corn chips; we attack the stove with a vengeance, the fridge with slightly less passion, spending long moments contemplating whether we can keep the strawberry jam or not, and some of us will even purge winter coat pockets of errant crumbs lodged in their folds. Our house in order, out come our old Passover recipes, we make the food shopping list, load up on matzah meal, cursing the Jews who have bought out the entire supply of cake meal, and start peeling onions.
This year, however, in keeping with the original intent of Passover, I am completely unprepared. I didn't plan to be unprepared, if there is such a thing. It just happened. My daughter Anna broke her leg skiing, and so for the three weeks pre-Passover, instead of hunting down my Seder plate and my stash of plastic plagues that amuse children and adults alike, I was icing Anna's leg, taking her to physical therapy, keeping her leg elevated, feeding her Percocet, rubbing Traumeel on her bruises and making her homemade French toast and pancakes (yes, homemade). I did not give Passover much thought, and now that it's upon me, my carry-on bag isn't close to being filled.
Thus, for the first time, I have a limited idea of what the Israelites might have psychologically experienced way down in Egypt, for when a crisis is upon you, everything is reduced to what is absolutely essential. No time for coats or for fancy dishes. No time to shave my legs. No time for anything except what I really, honestly, truly need. People. Gotta invite my peeps for the Passover Seder, because the Israelites would never have escaped individually, they had to go as a group. I dash off e-mails and make phone calls, and once my twenty-eight guests are confirmed, I mentally ponder the food situation. On Thursday, four days before Passover, I schlep Anna back to her classes, lugging the big-ass wheelchair in and out of the trunks of taxis, and resolve to start cooking or cleaning or -- something. But when I get home, there are ice packs, and my younger son seems to think he's entitled to eat dinner, and then Anna says we really have to wash her hair. She has long, thick, curly hair and washing, conditioning, detangling and braiding it is almost as time consuming as passing a UN resolution. The grocery shopping falls to the bottom of the to-do list.
Then it's the Friday before Passover, and we're leaving Egypt on Monday. We gotta get ready! I rummage through my recipes, which breeds a grocery list, which prompts a look-see in the cabinet, which results in tossing Rosh Hashanah honey that has crystallized, and then it's onto the fridge. Oy. Mayonnaise -- technically, this jar is not kosher for Passover. However... I need it for my cauliflower frittata. Nobody will know. I'm keeping it.
Fine, I have about three days to put this Passover Seder together, which is a heck of a lot more time than the Israelites had, but we've come to expect more than just a piece of matzah for dinner. I decide to ask for help from my band of Upper West Side Hebrews. Gena volunteers a flourless chocolate cake. David and Carol are all over the charoset, the sweet, paste-like substance that's supposed to represent the mortar of the bricks that the Israelites were slaving over in Egypt. Barak is bringing a fresh horseradish root, and a proper Passover meal starts to shape itself. However, the extra touches -- placecards, flowers, sliced lemons for water -- will have to fall by the wayside.
Over the years, we've developed certain Passover Seder traditions. For example, we go around the table and play the "I'm leaving Egypt and I'm taking with me..." game in which each person chooses an item to take with him or her, while at the same time recalling and repeating what the others before have said they would take with them. Or, in conjunction with the slavery theme, we ask, "What are you a slave to in today's world?" Answers have included, "My children," "My job," "My blackberry," and "Sex." In the past few weeks, the theme of freedom, not slavery, has preoccupied me. Watching Anna not free to walk, not free of pain, I've become hyper aware of how I take for granted my freedom of movement. So this year, I'm going to ask: Which freedom are you most grateful for? Because when you reduce it to the essentials, to what is absolutely necessary, it wasn't just unleavened bread that the unprepared Israelites took with them when they left Egypt. They took their freedom.
2 10-ounce boxes frozen cauliflower
½ envelope onion soup mix
12 cup mayonnaise
Defrost cauliflower. Drain, mash and mix well beaten eggs, onion soup mix and mayonnaise. Grease 9x13 inch pan and line with matzo meal. Pour in cauliflower mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serves 8-10.