essay_passovergoesgourmet_sunset

Passover Goes Gourmet

Why was this night different from all other nights? For starters, there was a bar. And not a bottle of Manischewitz behind it. Guests were actually drinking wine — good wine — before the first of the traditional four glasses was poured. Little-known fact about Jews, namely East Coast women over the age of 50: they don’t drink. No religious explanation for this, they just don’t. And, honestly, most of them really should.

Secondly, people were dressed in jeans. My mother never let me wear even my very best Jordache to Passover Seder. Dresses and tights that would sag around my ankles only. Now, almost three decades later — with “you can’t wear that” ringing in my head — I swapped a pair of faded cords for a stylish purple number and heels. I hadn’t felt this overdressed since I wore a bathing suit to the Big Sur hot springs.

But above all, this wasn’t my grandparents’ house in a manicured suburb outside of Boston. My scary old aunts and crazy second-cousins-once-removed were clear across the country. There was no whiny Cousin Gary, who once gave me a trashcan for my bat mitzvah. Or puffy Cousin Linda with cankles as thick as Cottonelle Ultra. There was no kids’ table. Or Welch’s white grape juice. Or lengthy conversations-cum-arguments about what route everyone took to get there.

Rather, this was a Seder of total strangers. Fifty folks here voluntarily – not because their parents forced them to come. Jews and gentiles, gay boys and a sprinkling of grandmas, all gathered under the soaring roof of a mod-white warehouse-café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The real draw: the food.

Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom were cooking, not Grandma Hannah. Two twenty-something college buddies turned artisanal Deli Guys who launched Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen last year as a weekly pop-up. They had an immediate cult following — and just opened a real-deal restaurant in February. Last April, their first-ever public Passover Seder sold out within minutes by word of mouth.

Imagine, the promise of Gefilte fish that good.

Candles were lit. Communal tables were set. Sparely. No lacy-white tablecloths or blue Danube china. Playing silently on a screen overhead was the ‘50s classic film The Ten Commandments. I mean, Charlton Heston’s low-tech parting of the Red Sea is the kind of Seder entertainment I really could’ve used as a kid.

I loved my grandpa Orrin, I really did. He was a kind, lanky doctor in a knit-tie and corduroy blazer — but the Seders he led were by-the-book snooze.

Here was fresh-faced, 26-year-old Leo! With waist-length dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail, he had a cool, confident command over the room that would no doubt make his own grandfather proud. “What kind of cigarettes do Jews smoke?” he asked to kick things off. “Gefilt-ahs!” guests groaned. After the blessing over the wine, servers presented plates of matzo–it was blistered, cracker-thin, imperfectly shaped. And not from a box, but made by Blake Joffe of Beauty’s Bagel Shop — with more than just the requisite flour-and-water. If all it takes is a little sea salt and olive oil to enhance matzo’s typically dry-mouth taste, then I vote for a minor overhaul of tradition.

Still, this was a legit Seder. Everyone had a photocopy of a Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs, and biblical tales that recount the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

Yeah, it’s a good story. But as a kid, taking turns around the table reading the.entire.freaking.thing meant we didn’t eat for hours. I’d steal sprigs of parsley from the tabletop (long after we’d dipped it in salt water) — and sit, starving, and bored as hell. Grandma’s dense-as-rocks matzo balls and gray, leather-tough brisket weren’t any prize. But by the time dinner was actually served, they were edible.

“Tonight, we’re going to move through the Passover story pretty quickly,” announced Leo. “We’ve got eating to do!” Amen to that.

And so it began: The explanation of the Seder plate. The Four Questions. (Typically the youngest person at the table is charged with tone-deaf singing this integral part of the evening. But on this night, the lone ‘tween was too shy; instead we were treated to a woman who actually had a beautiful voice.) The Ten Plagues. By “Dayenu” we’d lost count of glasses of wine and were all one, big, actually happy family–singing, clapping, exchanging smiles. At one point, a black, Caribbean born, non-Jew named George turned to me and exclaimed: “I love this! I’m with my people!”

Before we knew it, dinner was served, family-style: Pickled heirloom carrots and bulls blood beets. “Mock liver” mashed with organic peas and blue lake beans. The prettiest, most perfectly pungent, hand-grated fluorescent-fuschia horseradish I’ve ever had. (Note to Wise Sons: jar that stuff!) The soup was a clean, flavorful broth buoying matzo balls as God intended them to be: feather-light and fluffy. The Gefilte fish was a custom-grind of carp and whitefish in a fennel-thyme fumet and a far cry from the congealed liquid you see every season at Safeway. And the brisket… Not gray! Not tough! But fork-tender shreds of peppery-sweet meat.

One woman at our table sent her husband home to grab some Tupperware for leftovers. “I swear I don’t usually do this, but it’s just sooo good and I can’t eat another bite!” Not me. I was a member of the Passover clean-plate club for the first time.

Down to the last sips of Madeira, matched with a creamy-rich Guittard pot de crème (single-handedly bringing kosher desserts back from the dead), there was laughter; career-advice-giving; gossip about embarrassing wedding toasts and bad break-ups about people we didn’t know. No barking between relatives or “help-clear-the-table” mandates from mom. But hugs good-bye. And sincere cries of: “Next Year — with Wise Sons!”

Photos by Craig Lee