For as long as I can remember, Pesach has conjured up the image of a mound of whole walnuts on a white kitchen table. My mother, grandmother, sister and I encircled it, as if sitting around a campfire telling tales. We dismantled the shells with unwieldy nutcrackers, filling three bowls: one with the shards, another with the meats, and the last, with the mortar wrought by a hand-cranked nut grinder.
Hours passed, and the cuts on our fingers bore witness to our efforts. It was worth it, for we needed those walnuts to prepare what, to my young mind, composed the essence of the holiday: the charoset and an endless parade of tortes that would collapse if we walked too close to the oven.
The memory dates to the 1970s, long before the great quinoa debate. We ate macaroons from a can, gefilte fish from a jar and crumb cake from a mix. Everything else we prepared from scratch, as if that — more than the sedarim, more than kashering the kitchen — authenticated the holiday.
Over time, we sampled the latest packaged foods, giving them a tepid reception. But we embraced the arrival of shelled walnuts as if we had been redeemed from slavery in our days. Still, the memory of doing it ourselves, of preparing for the chag among a circle of women, never lost its emotional hold on me.
I even bought a nutcracker and grinder when I first made Pesach in my own home, though I had no interest in shelling nuts, surely not alone. For years, I removed them from storage and never used them at all. Standing at the counter by myself, my young sons playing in the next room, I pulsed the already shelled nuts from the store in my Cuisinart instead.
The boys, watching me curiously as I unpacked the nutcracker, eventually grew old enough to ask: What’s that? What’s it for? Why do you need it? If not, why do you keep it?
Unable to face the answers, I quickly stowed their inquiry with the Pesach dishes. Yet the nutcracker felt heavier to me when I took it out the following year, more like a fool’s burden than a lofty memory. The glass bowl on the grinder had cracked, too. It was time to let them go.
With empty hands, I wondered whether it would have been different if my blessings had been daughters, not sons. It is unlikely, I realized, that they would have joined me in my nostalgia either, though they might have instinctively kept me company in the kitchen. I loved cooking for the holiday; I just never imagined I’d be doing it alone.
Longing to pick up where my memories left off, I began to search for a kitchen ritual that would stick to my sons’ hearts like so much matzah. I gave them lemons to juice, but their enthusiasm quickly waned. Whipping egg whites hurt their hands, and shaping mandelbread held no lure whatsoever. They loved burning the chametz, but were happy to let the rest of the holiday appear magically before their eyes.
Staring at the plenitude of free matzah we’d earned with our store purchases, I had an oddball idea: We could grind our own matzah meal. Certainly cost-effective, the process would also be loud, tactile and messy, a perfect activity for young boys. Most importantly, though, it would keep my sons in the kitchen with me for a while.
I draped beach towels across the counter and table, and we soon fell into a rhythm. We cracked the squares, swirling them in the food processor before scooping the small shards into a coffee grinder. By the day’s end, we had processed seven pounds of matzah into soft, sand-like dunes.
Floury dust covered the cabinets, the floor and our clothing. But on the counter stood our prized trophy: a massive canister of matzah meal. The boys surely envisioned the knaidlach emerging from their handiwork, though it is possible they also saw the bigger picture. We’d actually made Pesach together. We have dragged out the equipment every year since, and no one here has ever pointed out how easily we could buy our own.
When, God willing, the boys get married, my daughters-in-law will undoubtedly send them to the store to do just that. Most likely, they will have by then witnessed our matzah grinding ritual and reacted as aI did when I first saw my mother-in-law ironing my father-in-law’s undershirts. I turned gently to my husband and announced, “Not a chance!”
Now if, while dismissing my old ways, my sons lovingly tell their wives and children about when they were slaves grinding matzah meal in my kitchen and how they would have had it no other way, I will be redeemed.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer in Edison, N.J., where she lives with her family. She blogs at mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and is at work on a memoir about raising boys.