Reinventing Easter, Passover and Other Holiday Meals in a Time of Limits

Over the next several weeks, Americans will conduct virtual Seders, cook Easter brunch for just one or two, enjoy scaled-down Nowruz feasts at a six-foot distance from one another, and break their Ramadan fasts while isolating at home.

All of these holy days and celebrations, which promote renewal and reflection, involve gathering around meals. Social distancing has suddenly posed a big barrier, and some festivities have been called off.

Yet despite widespread restrictions on travel, congregating in large groups or attending religious services, many people are finding creative ways to stage their holidays. Food, one of a few pleasures still available in the lockdown, has taken on even more importance.

Credit…Doug Kahn

Doug Kahn, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, sent an invitation this month via Zoom, the virtual conferencing service, asking 20 guests to join him and his wife, Ellen, for a virtual Seder dinner on April 8, the eve of Passover. Rabbi Kahn, 69, scanned the Haggadah, the text that guides Jews through the rituals of the Seder, into a PDF, and told everyone to email their favorite recipes for the group to share.

The hardest element of the Seder to do online, he said, is the afikoman, the piece of matzo that is usually hidden in the house for children to hunt for. The rabbi’s plan is to take his laptop computer from room to room, and let people guess where they think the matzo is hidden.

To stock up early for Easter Sunday, on April 12, Marley Giggey, a graduate student in Cincinnati, has been sending her husband, Phill, who works the night shift at Target, to the supermarket on his way home, just as the store opens. She is paring down her celebration to her family of four, from the usual 20 or so.

Still, she’ll need plenty of eggs, both to cook with and to dye, and a ham. (Both have been in short supply at the grocery.) Ms. Giggey, 32, and several family members have bought Facebook Portals so they can make candy together, an Easter tradition since Ms. Giggey was a girl, and one she hopes to pass down to two young children.

Hassan Chami, a pharmacy owner, runs a Ramadan food festival in Dearborn Heights, Mich., that in past years has brought in nearly 10,000 guests and more than 40 vendors. This year’s was supposed to take place every Friday and Saturday night from May 10 to May 23, going until 3 a.m. so the area’s sizable Muslim population could break their daily fast together with the predawn meal known as suhoor. (Ramadan in the United States runs this year from April 23 to May 23.)

Mr. Chami has canceled the event, and is donating some of the sponsorship money he received toward buying supplies for local hospitals. He also owns a restaurant, the Terry Melt, which, along with other festival vendors, is giving away free food to hospital workers. Mr. Chami, 31, is sad about canceling the festival, but feels that his relief effort is in the spirit of the occasion.

“Ramadan is a month where you deprive yourself physically to allow yourself to feel how others are feeling in times of need,” he said.

Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is already in full swing. It is celebrated over 13 days, beginning with the spring equinox (this year just before midnight on March 19). People throw parties, set up their haft-sin (a collection of seven items like garlic and vinegar that symbolize hope for the new year), and eat sabzi polo ba mahi, fish with herbed rice.

Credit…Katayoun Kishi

Katayoun Kishi, a data manager in Atlanta, spent the Tuesday before the start of Nowruz, known as Chaharshanbe Suri, joining her mother and older sister in the tradition of jumping over a fire. But health concerns inspired some new twists: “We stood six feet apart from each other when we jumped over the fire, and we had tea out of Styrofoam cups so no one would have to wash any potentially contaminated dishes,” she said.

They called off the party for 100 that they’d been planning to host, and because most Atlanta restaurants have been shut down, they weren’t able to get shirini, traditional sweets eaten during Nowruz, from their local bakery. The haft-sin has been pared down, as Ms. Kishi wasn’t able to find everything at the store.

She and her sister self-isolated during before Nowruz so they could spend Chaharshanbe Suri with their mother, who is 65 and thus more vulnerable to infection. Ms. Kishi, 30, went to a Whole Foods Market to buy trout so her mother wouldn’t have to leave the house. They made the sabzi polo ba mahi with dried herbs from the pantry.

Ms. Kishi said it’s important for her to eat this specific dish, as “it is not something we ever eat the rest of the year,” she said. “Growing up in America, one of the only connections I have to Iran is through this holiday.”

For Mina Moshtaghi, 35, who runs an event space in Dallas, an essential part of Nowruz is younger people visiting older people to bring sweets. “I am hearing a lot of my friends’ parents say, ‘Come over anyway, it’s OK,’ ” she said. “I don’t know if it is right or wrong, but that’s the sentiment.”

Many Christians and Jews are scaling back their plans for Easter and Passover.

Ann Ittoop, a food blogger whose family is from Kerala, India, will likely stay home with her husband and mother-in-law in East Hanover, N.J., baking pesaha appam, an unleavened bread made of rice that Kerala Christians eat on Holy Thursday, rather than visit her parents in Charlotte, N.C. To stick with custom, on Easter Sunday, Ms. Ittoop, 32, plans to make her mother’s chicken curry and biryani, but she knows how to make them only in big batches.

“I guess we will be feasting for a few days,” she said.

In Bethesda, Md., Kathy Sklar, a business program manager at the Smithsonian Institution, will host her Seder via Zoom, and is packing up portions of brisket, gefilte fish and matzo-ball soup to drop off at guests’ homes, so they can all share the same meal.

“We even had extra leaves made for our dining room table, so we could all finally sit together,” Ms. Sklar, 62, said with a sigh. “That will have to wait another year.”

For some, being confined to the home is an opportunity. Charlotte Niedermann, 30, a fund-raiser in Cambridge, Mass., sees Passover this year as a chance to try new dishes, as her boyfriend’s parents, whom she usually visits during Passover, are “not adventurous eaters.”

Meghan Groob, 32, a speechwriter in Seattle, said that with all the time she is spending at home, she can finally cook kosher meals she is excited about. Normally, she has to go to the office and can’t do meal prep. “By the end of Passover I am just eating potato chips and raw fruit,” she said.

This Easter, Tyrone Henderson, 27, had planned to drive to Fredericksburg, Va., to see his sister. But he was recently laid off from his job as chef de partie at Kith and Kin, in Washington. He is planning to cook for his grandmother, whom he lives with but previously didn’t see often because of his busy restaurant schedule.

“When I am at work, usually she just goes to McDonald’s and gets chicken nuggets and a milkshake,” he said. “It’ll be nice to cook her a full meal. People should be able to have a nice meal for Easter, no matter what place we are in as a nation.”

Being stuck at home also gives younger Americans an incentive to tackle family recipes for the first time.

Milena Lai, 25, a research associate in Los Angeles, will attempt panettone, a technically challenging Italian sweet bread that is an essential part of the Easter table for her Italian-American family. The confection takes two or more days to make, and is acutely sensitive to everything from the strength of the starter to the ambient temperature.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Ms. Lai said. “But I am excited to be forced into the opportunity to do it.”

Both her mother and grandmother have been calling to coach her and offer tips, like adding an extra egg yolk when mixing the dough for a richer taste, or boiling a potato in water, then incorporating that liquid for a moister texture. She has already bought some of the 15 eggs that her mother’s recipe requires.

For Passover, which requires Jews to eliminate leavened foods products from their diets, some people have started stocking up on kosher-for-Passover foods early, fearing a shortage.

Cecily Dreyfuss, a receptionist in Forest Hills, Queens, has worried about finding kosher-for-Passover foods at a time when many store shelves are depleted. “My dad was at the kosher grocer, and there were products you’d expect to be there emptying out,” she said.

“We get kosher-for-Passover everything, down to condiments,” added Ms. Dreyfuss, 24, “But I am sure those smaller, less explicitly Passover-y things like ketchup and mayo will fall to the wayside this year.”

Mordy Herzog, 44, the chief executive of Royal Wine Corporation and Kayco, suppliers of kosher food and beverages, said while he has noticed a recent surge in sales, people shouldn’t worry about supplies running out. “We always forecast to have more, and thank God at a time like this it has paid off,” he said.

All these constraints can feel unsettling, but Helen Bahena, a college student in Houston, pointed out that they resonate with the spiritual underpinnings of the holidays.

She is used to an elaborate Easter brunch with her large Roman Catholic family, but this year she’ll be cooking with pantry staples like beans and rice.

“Jesus fed a whole crowd with just some bread and fish,” she said. “We’ll be OK.”

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