Written for The PJ Library March e-newsletter
Remember the Little Red Hen, who searched the farm high and low for help baking bread? Well, she’s back. Only this time she speaks Yiddish, and she’s getting ready for Passover. Unfortunately, not much else has changed around the farm in this month’s PJ selection The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah. No one wants to help plant, harvest, or grind the wheat, or do much of anything besides kvetch and, of course, eat. So, the Little Red Hen ends up preparing her Passover meal all by herself.
“That’s not fair,” cried my daughters. “She doesn’t have any helpers.”
“That’s not fair,” I thought. Why can’t I have the kitchen all to myself the day before Passover?
The benefits of cooking alone are not lost on me. Neither are they lost on The PJ Library, whose other book about Passover cooking, Too Many Cooks, is a cautionary tale about what happens when everyone wants to contribute a little something to the charoset. Let’s just say that Bubbe should have locked the kitchen door and worked her magic. Alone.
Do I sound like a grouch? In truth, I love many things about cooking with others, which in my case, invariably means my children. I love how serious they look in their little aprons, and the way they try to sneak their fingers into the sugar when I’m not looking. I even love the way they can’t manage to crack an egg without half the shell going along for the ride, and the cloud of flour that flies around their heads whenever they mix dry ingredients, like a bleached out version of Pigpen from Peanuts. Their enthusiasm makes the work of cooking way more fun than it ought to be, and their sense of wonder about it all is a welcome reminder of how magical baking really is.
But, when it’s time to prepare a holiday meal for a table full of company, sometimes I just want everything to be picture perfect, like my mother’s table looked when I was growing up. Deep down, I want my guests to ooh and aah, at least a tiny bit, over my flawless creations, as I try to replicate my mother’s handiwork. And let’s face it – little hands do not pinch perfect hamentashen, neatly chop the apples for charoset, or evenly coat the challah with egg wash.
Does that mean I’m going to lock the kitchen door? No. (And not just because we don’t have a kitchen door, much less a lock.) When I think back on celebrating Jewish holidays as a child, I don’t remember much about going to synagogue, shaking the lulav and etrog, or even reciting the four questions. (Granted, I kind of remember High Holiday junior congregation, but I think that’s only because Ira Glass of This American Life used to lead the services when he was a teenager.) What I do remember is cooking and baking with my mother. My little hands pinched perfect hamentashen, neatly chopped apples for charoset, and evenly coated the challah with egg wash. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Did my mother really manage to teach me how to make such beautiful food? Or did she tuck away the items I had helped with in the kitchen, putting only the work of her skilled hands on the dining room platters? Last night, I called her up and asked.
My mother laughed. “Of course I served the food you made,” she said. “Who cares if the apples were a little big, or the hamenstashen filling spilled over a little bit? You were so proud of what you made!”
Probably my mother was a more patient teacher than I, and perhaps my work was a little more careful than that of my daughters. But more likely than not, what made those plates of food so gorgeous was the love and joy that went into their preparation. What I remember as perfect is really just a perfect memory.
I’m not completely relinquishing control, lest I end up like Bubbe in Too Many Cooks, with an inedible dish. But, it is my job to throw the kitchen door wide open. If I’m lucky, it will be a long time before I get a “Not I!” from one of my daughters when I ask for help preparing the next big meal.
The PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.