The Empty Seder Plate

I cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.

Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.

My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.

My mother never let her lack of credentials get in the way of her achievements. In the afterglow of Betty Friedan’s, “The Feminine Mystique,” she went back to school. It was the mid-1960s and my mother was among the first wave of women returning to higher education. I was five when she applied for a Master’s degree in Spanish literature. She talked her way into the program, claiming that her wedding gown and her diploma were trapped behind Castro’s clanking iron curtain.

Tia had transplanted tropical Cuba to freezing Connecticut with her culinary acrobatics. The recipes she used were never written down.

I learned a lot about my mother during her graduate school years. But what struck me most about that time was that my mother was as slow a reader as I, her kindergarten daughter, was. She bought a cookbook holder to read Don Quijote constantly as she stirred a bubbling stew on its way to burning the bottom of the pot. “Burnt food doesn’t have any calories,” she said as she ate her charred dinner away from us over the kitchen sink. She drenched tuna fish in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and baked the thick concoction until it left an exoskeleton imprinted on the Pyrex pan.

In the meantime Tia had achieved near perfection and total adulation from us kids with her American-style papitas fritas. She also excelled at making bourequas, Sephardic style knishes that we couldn’t get enough of. She pickled and cooked a cow’s tongue—the biggest block of meat I ever saw—and paired it with tostones and arroz y frijoles. Tia had transplanted tropical Cuba to freezing Connecticut with her culinary acrobatics. The recipes she used were never written down. Her dishes were an oral history of my family’s migration from Turkey and Greece to Cuba. 

Witnessing Tia’s success in the kitchen, my mother stepped up her game and made what turned out to be the driest paella in the western hemisphere. To give the dish a kosher sensibility, she substituted hotdogs for sausage and exchanged bits of salmon and flounder for shellfish. Her rice glowed neon yellow from over seasoning with saffron and, of course, there were raisins mixed in with peas and peppers. My mother over-baked the whole enterprise until the rice was beyond crispy. Her chicken was similarly desiccated—the skin of the bird crumbling to the touch, the meat as flavorful as a tongue depressor. 

When my highly assimilated Americano father took over making school lunches, he slipped American cheese in between pieces of deli turkey until he worked his way to packing us soggy ham sandwiches. An unspoken rebellion, this sign of marital discord also marked the beginning of what was a very slippery slope with respect to kashrut. I don’t remember how it happened, but one Sunday morning my mother was frying bacon. Her dark hair coming out of its bun, her reading glasses askew as she read a novelita propped up in her cookbook holder. “You’ll learn that sometimes you have to please a man,” she sighed. My dad, sturdy and intimidating in those days, slathered the BLTs she made him with mayonnaise. No one said a word about the equally treyf rubbery clams that appeared in the smoky paella my mother served for Shabbat dinner.

Tia was more faithful to the laws of kashrut. She kept milk and meat separate in her cooking, and the meat she used was succulent and kosher. In a nod to our Anatolian heritage she made tishpishti—a Turkish cake drenched in honey. She also made biscochos—sweet dough baked in the shape of donuts. In addition to making Sephardic delicacies, Tia also perfected her Ashkenazi mother-in-law’s recipes for gefilte fish and chopped liver. My mother attempted to make her own mother-in-law’s chopped liver, but it was eggy and garlicky and swimming in mayonnaise. Her swampy version came up short on chicken liver, which pleased my kid’s palate.   

The Passover holiday, though, belonged to Tia. Her unleavened foods were indistinguishable from the ones she made the rest of the year. The Passover bourequas would rival the regular ones and her tishpishti was as spongy and flavorful as the “chametz” version. The tongue would sit alongside the brisket Tia learned to make in America. My mother knew she had no part in this veritable feast. And so she dragged the spotlight from Tia by doing what she did best: she threw a temper tantrum. This one was over the fact that Tia’s husband, Tio, was not wearing a tie to the Seder. Tia stood at the threshold of our back door, brisket and bourequas in hand, only to be sent away. The sisters stopped speaking to each other.

The next Passover, a former student of my mother’s—Mom had gone on to teach high school Spanish—now a reporter for the local newspaper, contacted her about a story she was writing on Passover cuisine. She remembered my mother as vaguely exotic—a Cuban Jew with roots in Turkey and Greece. Along with drilling her students in stem changing verbs, my mother also unfurled her personal history in the classroom. Here was a chance for my mother to expand her audience beyond the teenagers she taught. By then I was in graduate school studying writing and modern literature. She called to tell me that she was excited about the opportunity to tell the Greater Hartford metropolitan area she still had the key to her apartment in Havana. If she had to offer some holiday recipes in return for the attention, so be it.

The first order of business was to make up with Tia. This was tricky, since my mother never apologizes. Instead, she lets time pass and then pretends that nothing has happened. She called Tia betting that she would inevitably forgive her. My mother’s proposal was straightforward: Tia would make the Passover food for the photo shoot and my mother would praise her sister’s culinary abilities in a very public forum. Tia agreed.

My mother looked beautiful for the photo session. She had traded up to contact lenses and wore her long hair in a pretty flip. The former student arrived with a photographer and asked my mother about the Passovers of her childhood. Tia was late with her food delivery. The dining room table where my mother and her reporter-student chatted was as barren as the desert into which the Israelites were liberated.

The photographer was getting antsy and my mother assured him that the food would arrive at any moment. She told her guests that she and her sister had cooked at Tia’s house to keep things tidy for the photo shoot. Two hours later there was still no food. My mother hoped her sister had been in a car accident.

The photographer decided to take pictures of my mother anyway, posing her at the dining room table with an empty Seder plate in front of her. It turned out that my mother was featured with two other Sephardic women who stood behind their food-laden dining room tables. Undeterred, my mother had offered her own recipes for Passover biscochos and something she called “Pink Rice.” Always the teacher, she pointed out that Sephardic Jews, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, were allowed to have rice on Passover. 

In keeping with my mother’s culinary capabilities, the biscochos were made with matzah meal and orange juice. There were no baking instructions. Pink rice—arroz rosado—got its coloring from canned tomato paste and according to my mother “melted” in one’s mouth. As usual, my mother bypassed reason and credibility yet was still taken seriously. “Weren’t you embarrassed that you didn’t have any food to show?” I asked her. “Of course not. Your Tia is a sin verguenza”—an offensive phrase I knew from my kitchen Spanish to mean “without shame.” But in the end we both knew that Tia was the true winner, preserving her dignity while my mother, quietly disgraced, never mentioned the incident again. 

A few years ago I was packing up my mother’s house for her move to an assisted living facility and I found a copy of that long-ago Passover article in her jewelry box. It was yellow like her saffron rice and crumbled to the touch like the skin of her chicken.