The Nutcracker

March 25, 2012

One of my earliest – and fondest – memories of Pesach is this:

My grandmother, my mother, my sister, and I are sitting around my mother’s kitchen table. There are bags of whole walnuts in a pile at the center, and the broken shells are slowly filling up a large Pyrex bowl. Three of us grip our metal nutcrackers, and one lucky soul – the one whose turn it is to give her knuckles a rest – is cranking the clumsily shelled nut pieces in a hand-turned nut grinder.

It was hard work shelling those nuts, and the process left cuts across our fingers. But we needed them for charoset and nut tortes and ingberlach and all sorts of other holiday confections. 

This was the early 1970s, and contrary to my children’s tongue-in-cheek humor, dinosaurs were, in fact, already extinct for some time by then. Still, the Pesach dish soap came only in a bar and we cooked with something called Nyfat, which looked in the jar as I imagine it did in our arteries.

The selection of Pesach mixes was paltry by today’s standards, and we eschewed most of it, with the exception of that delicious crumb cake. Bottles of schav, borscht, macaroons, soup nuts, and jarred gefilte fish floating in a gelatinous sea claimed prime prepared food real estate. It didn’t matter, though, because Mom and Grandma made everything anyway, and each item they concocted was delicious, even if it all tasted like matzah.

The number of available products multiplied with each passing year. Some we tried; others we simply ignored. The arrival of shelled walnuts, however, we embraced as if we’d been redeemed from slavery, even though it stole that time together out from under us. Time wrought other changes in our lives, too, but we never veered from the family seder menu. Farfel stuffing was one of our only constants. 

Decades later, as I struggle not to be a dinosaur myself, I quietly make my way down the supermarket aisles in these weeks leading up to Pesach. I appreciate how the teeming shelves have made a cumbersome cooking experience less traumatic for some. For now, I marvel, but never buy, still clinging steadfastly to the concept of making it all myself. 

My affection for that moment at the kitchen table, shelling walnuts with the women in my family, has also never waned. When I first made Pesach as a newlywed, I bought my own nutcracker and hand-turned nut grinder because my mom had already long ago parted with hers. I’ve never used either, but I unpack them each year to keep the memory fresh. 

For now, I’m off to the races, cleaning and shopping and preparing for the arrival of the big day. Wishing all of you a happy, healthy and memorable holiday – chag kasher v’sameach!