Coastal Georgia is not an ideal place for a novice to make gefilte fish. I realized this at the counter of City Market, Brunswick’s fish market. The display case was filled with fresh shrimp.
“Do you have any carp?” The man looked at me quizzically. “Um, what about pike?” He shook his head slowly. “What kind of fresh fish do you have?”
“We have grouper. How were you planning to cook it?”
“I’m going to – er, make fish meatballs out of it,” I said.
The shopkeeper looked at the meaty pink fillets sadly, then back at me with a raised eyebrow. “Fish meatballs?”
“Well, yeah it’s this tradition …” I trailed off. Passover in the South, I had learned, was a tradition unto itself.
John and I were newlyweds when we moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 2006. We embraced the south with all our might, and were soon eating grits, drinking tea and bourbon in rocking chairs on our front porch, and resting on Sundays – not because it was our Sabbath, but because nothing was open.
As spring approached, so did our first Passover south of the Mason Dixon Line. We decided to attend the synagogue’s seder – we didn’t yet know enough people to host our own – but I still wanted to buy some staples. The grocery store by my house had carried a limited supply of matzah, which had largely run out. All that was left was whole wheat — as if regular matzoh wasn’t cardboardish enough!
“Rabbi, are there any supermarkets that have more of a kosher selection?”
“Yeah, the Pig!”
The Rabbi was referring to the Piggly Wiggly. After he and his wife finally convinced me they weren’t joking, I went to check it out. The Pig on the western side of town was the place with Empire and other kosher meats, as well as a full supply of kosher-for-Passover products.
John and I hosted our first Seder in 2005, and we’ve made a nice tradition out of it. We usually combine an eclectic mix of Jews away from home, curious first-timers, and folks who come to our house whenever they’re told that John is in the kitchen. We’ve opened our invitations, set up folding chairs, and never turned anyone down. Except once.
Linda sat in the cubicle behind me. An Evangelical Christian, she told me repeatedly that she prayed for my soul. When I described our modest plans for Passover, her eyes lit up.
It was the first time she’d ever been interested in anything about my religion, other than trying to convince me out of it.
“The last supper meal? Darlin, that sounds fascinating.”
I didn’t invite her.
Instead, my sister flew down and helped to make the matzah ball soup. We made charoset with muscadine wine instead of Manischevitz. Our Catholic neighbors accepted our invitation and (in English) asked the four questions. John prepared a brisket and made sure there was ample wine.
Seder is a tradition as old as my heritage, but every year something changes: someone dies, someone is born, someone marries. Had Gadya may run sharp one year and flat the next. Sometimes we return home to celebrate with our families, relying on the Maxwell House Hagaddah and ancient melodies. But sometimes we find ourselves in exile, not just from Israel but from the Jewish comforts of home and family. And what do we do? We build from the bottom up. Grouper gefilte fish and all.