Editor’s note: Tessa Haining, 13, granddaughter of Tucsonans Marcelle and Leonard Joffe, wrote this essay about their family’s Jewish holiday food traditions.
The children in the room were getting antsy, scooching around on their chairs and toying with the silverware laid out on the table. They glanced at the window, where the sun was rapidly setting, at the ceiling, where a spider was climbing the walls of the intricate lampshade, at the dessert table, where the edge of a flourless chocolate torte could be seen, and back around again. The parents were reading the story of Moses aloud from the Haggadah, the same long passage they read every year. It was the middle of the Passover step Magid, telling the story, when the hunger and starvation of the Israelite slaves is described. That didn’t help the cousins, who could see all the masses of food waiting for them in 30 long minutes, when the first part of the Seder was finally over and it would be time for everyone’s favorite step, Shulchan Orech — otherwise known as the big meal. The aroma of bouillon, horseradish, brisket and strawberry was too much for 13-year-old cousin Elijah, who blurted out, “Food! What’s for food?”
Aunt Liz replied, “What do you think? Granny’s matzah ball soup, followed by gefilte fish, then brisket, tsimmes, and greens; and for dessert, Granny’s flourless chocolate torte, matzah crunch, and of course Granny’s pavlova.”
The Joffe (my mother’s side) family traditions can be summed up in one word: food. In Judaism, a lot of holidays have a certain food or foods that are connected with that particular holiday, and every year, my grandmother Marcelle makes that food and more. She is an incredible cook, and even when she isn’t around, most of the things we eat start with the word “Granny,” like Granny cookies, Granny fish, and the family favorite, Granny’s matzah ball soup.
When Granny came to visit in September for the High Holidays, she spent an entire day just making chicken soup. We ended up with 27 gallons’ worth that we had to freeze. That seemed like a lot, but in this family, we knew it wouldn’t last long. My cousins, brother and I ate large amounts during Passover, which is when many of the traditional Joffe family foods are made. Cookies, pavlova, chicken soup, matzah balls, sautéed cod, spinach ravioli, you name it. Like on the Seder plate, where every object means something, all of our Joffe foods have a story behind them. Take Granny’s beautiful cookie arrays, for example. Sitting around the table, munching on pecan shortbreads, my mother and uncle might recount the housewarming party Granny threw, when she baked cookies for 100 people. All she did for a week was bake, and all my uncle and mom did for a month afterward was eat cookies, even for breakfast! We all then laugh out loud at our grandmother’s dedication to baking and parties.
That’s the one thing each little story, each little snapshot, has in common: laughter. Although they are as diverse as you can get, each memory relates back to laughing as a family. When I take a bite of, say, spinach ravioli, I can feel the fresh breeze on the porch of the Cape Cod house and see the otter splashing in the pond below. I can hear the Fourth of July fireworks crackling in the dark night and my cousins explaining loudly to my grandmother why she made these ravioli the best in the world although she only took them out of a Trader Joe’s package and heated them up. I’m part of the laughter, happiness and love that passes between all of us, like some kind of magic. My family lives all over the world, so we rarely get to see everybody. But we have these recipes, written on curling brown paper in fading black script and speckled with oil, that are as happiness-inducing and lasting as the people we love, and the memories they bring, of laughter and love, good times and bad times, that will connect us, no matter where we are, what language we speak, or how old we are, forever.