Last year, I was invited to a seder at my friend Matt’s house. Now, I may be an agnostic Christian, but I am also a good guest, and so I asked what I could bring. I was assigned hors d’oeuvres, which proved more difficult than expected, as my instincts were all wrong. I was, after all, raised in coastal Massachusetts and weaned on shrimp cocktail.
My first thought was to make lettuce wraps with crab salad. Then I considered a rabbit terrine, only to discover that the hare, a cud-chewing animal without a cloven foot, has been prohibited since Leviticus. I considered making a bluefish pate, but I realized I probably shouldn’t serve a cream cheese-heavy recipe at a meal where there would be meat. Instead of continuing with the guesswork, I decided to throw myself into a culinary investigation about how to make my repertoire kosher for Passover. By the end, I knew more about biblical dietary laws than my host.
After long hours online, I could point out the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic rules. I could recite a list of kosher animals and explain why camel doesn’t qualify but giraffe does. (In short, the camel chews its cud, but doesn’t have a cloven hoof. The giraffe ruminates and has the right feet.) I had learned, from the essays of two different experts, what to do if I found a blood spot in an egg. (One said if the spot was in the white, it could be removed. The other said the whole egg had to be thrown out.)
“Do you think I should kasher my utensils?” I emailed Matt. “And do you avoid kitniyot for Passover, or is rice OK?”
“You’ll have to ask my father,” he replied, befuddled. “And, failing that, a rabbi.”
After peppering Matt with this litany of questions, a suggestion emerged: chicken liver pate. It was a challenge heightened by my inexperience with livers, but the stakes were already high: Matt’s seder would start with homemade matzo ball soup and move on to a brisket that he had braised for days. There would be two perfectly roasted chickens, platters of vegetables, and all the symbolic holiday foods. I quaked at the idea that I would show up with a sub-par spread—the kind that makes people go silent, or, worse yet, mutter a tepid “mmmm.” There was a promising recipe in the Gourmet magazine cookbook. I perused the ingredients: onion (kosher), garlic (kosher), butter (I’d substitute olive oil). It called for a pound of chicken livers. I bought two—just in case—at a pop-up Passover store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rounding out the recipe were currants and Cognac, and a kosher for Passover brandy was easy to find in New York City. During my trial run in the kitchen, I trimmed too much of the chicken fat. The pate was insufficiently creamy. I called my cousin Jeannie, one of the best cooks in my family.
“Easy fix,” she said. “Add a tablespoon of bacon fat.” It was the first time in my culinary career that bacon couldn’t save me.
I made a batch with more chicken fat, a little more oil. The result was better. I outfitted the rest of my appetizer platter with snacks that could do no wrong: pickles and vegetarian spreads. Then I hit my final roadblock. I needed something to dunk in my red pepper dip, something on which the pate could be spread. I’d gathered that chips are chametz and would not do. It had to be matzo. I realize some people love matzo. But, for others, no amount of butter, honey, or charoset will liven it up. I bought garlic matzo and rosemary matzo and plain, broke them up into shards, arranged them alongside my various spreads. Given a second chance, I’d bring endive for the dip.
“You know,” said Matt as he noshed, “we’re not that strict, and it’s not even sundown yet. You could have served this pate on toast.”
My hors d’oeuvres were a hit. More important, the creativity required had imparted a sense of occasion. For me, it made that night truly Different From All Other Nights. In fact, after the first few sumptuous courses, the menu is a blur. I recall, instead, the songs we sang—I knew “Dayenu” from Quaker grade school—and the surprisingly delicious variety of kosher wines.
Recently, I phoned Matt to see if he could remember what flourless dessert he served. “I think I made your pear cake,” he said. “You gave me the recipe.”
“But that cake is leavened,” I said.
“Oh?” he said. “Is that a problem?”