Feast of Freedom

My hands are in pretty good shape today. A blessing, because I spent all of last Thursday and Friday cooking our annual Passover seder—a five course extravaganza that I manage to pull off each year.

I’ve evolved the menu over decades, based on what works, what doesn’t and what everyone asks for and complains about if I don’t make it. For the past few seders, I’ve switched from a meat-centric meal to fish and vegetarian entrées, creating a new challenge to find great recipes for guests who still wish I’d make that brisket.

And I’ve tried to modify my approach to accommodate my hands, which I’ve managed to wreck a number of times in the past when I went overboard with elaborate menu planning. I pace myself through two days of cooking, choose recipes that are fairly simple but taste terrific, and always wear disposable vinyl gloves to protect my ulcers as I cook.

Al serves as sous chef and kitchen first mate, helping with all of the chopping, slicing, jar-opening, package-ripping, utensil-retrieving and the many, many, many rounds of dish-washing and drying as I power through preparation of each dish. I could not do this meal without his help. Not to mention the fact that he takes care of the huge task of switching over our kosher kitchen to our Passover dishes.

But for all my planning and experience, on Thursday I was struggling. My hands were killing me because much of our Passover cookware is old and cheap (no point spending money on stuff you use only eight days of the year), and harder to handle than our regular kitchen utensils. By the end of the evening, after I’d worn out my right hand from folding all the meringue into the spongecake batter, I sat down, exhausted, and wondered why I was doing this to myself once again.

I could simplify the menu—this year’s included Egyptian haroset, a paste made of dates, raisins and filberts; pickled salmon; Persian cucumber and yogurt soup; a Moroccan salad of fresh oranges and greens with a cinnamon dressing; a main course of Turkish leek patties, Moroccan eggplant and tomato casserole, and steamed asparagus; and apricot sponge cake, strawberries, grapes, figs and chocolate for dessert.

It’s a lot of work. But the truth is, much as it takes a physical toll, I don’t want to give it up. The meal was wonderful. Everyone loved it. There were barely enough left-overs for our Sunday night supper.

My bottom line is this: I just don’t want to give in to my scleroderma. I am incredibly stubborn, a perfectionist and, yes, a card-carrying control freak when it comes to anything I’m creating.

In Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film Babette’s Feast (based on a story by Isak Dinesen), the heroine, a French refugee who becomes the cook and housekeeper for a pair of Danish spinster sisters, creates an exquisite meal for them and members of their small, austere church community, to thank them for sheltering her over the years. I won’t spill the delicious secret twist that’s revealed at the film’s end, except for Babette’s concluding line: When the sisters realize she has spent all of her money to create her amazing gift of a meal, she answers, “An artist is never poor.”

Creating a wonderful meal for people you love is an art form. It’s nourishment wrapped in beautiful presentation and delicious flavor. It’s a gift that makes everyone feel good, that enhances sharing, conversation and connection. For the Passover seder, it’s also a reminder of all that we have to be grateful for, living in a free country. I don’t entertain often because of my hands. But when I do, I go all out. And I’ll keep doing so as long as I’m able.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.



  1. Patricia Bizzell says:

    I have to admit that the work of preparing for Passover has always irked me over the years. It’s gotten easier in some ways: I have kitchen cabinets now where I can keep some of the Passover dishes and glassware, so the task of switching the kitchen is easier; I now have to cook for only two people not four, throughout the week; and this year I did not even make a seder, since we had invitations to two at friends’ houses. As my arthritis gets worse and it’s harder to stand for long periods, these changes are a blessing. It always irked me that I had to make a seder, usually the largest dinner party by far that I hosted all year, with unfamiliar and inadequate cooking pots and other gear–as you say, why splurge on things used so seldom? Interestingly, however, because I did not make a seder this year, I missed it. I am determined to make at least one next year. May I borrow from your menu, Evie? It sounded delicious!

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