The binder is blue, plastic, and three-ringed. It says “Holidays” down the side of it in a familiar, black handwriting. I take it out once a year. I open the pages to some of my favorite recipes. The bing cherry brisket. The potato kugel. The carrot tzimmes. And I always read the list. The order. How to prepare Passover for 20.
My mother-in-law died six and a half years ago. She was 82. She was the family matriarch, the mother to four sons, and one of the best cooks and entertainers in the world. And I feel comfortable saying “in the world” because it’s true. Anything she cooked was delicious. Her table was always perfectly decorated. The presentation was gorgeous. And she always did the first seder of Passover.
She started doing the first seder of Passover way before I came into the picture. My husband can’t remember a time when she didn’t do it the first night. It was, like, a thing. As a stubborn newlywed, I wanted to occasionally do first night of Passover, too. But that didn’t work out. My mother wanted to do it. But that also didn’t work out. Instead, we all came to first night of Passover at Dot’s house, where there was always bing cherry brisket and roasted chicken thighs and potato kugel perfectly crisp and Passover popovers that made you forget they weren’t made with flour.
Besides the perfect meal, Dot would sing the Passover songs in an off-key voice that was so bad it was funny. She served perfectly round matzah balls from a huge pot in the kitchen; the women, including me, carried the bowls of one or two matzah balls in delectable chicken soup around the wall from the kitchen to the dining room, where everyone knew exactly what was coming. The one year she tried another brisket recipe, we revolted.
And then she died on a cool fall day. And with it, I thought, she took the first seder.
I had scooped up her blue, plastic, three-ringed binders of recipes–six or seven books altogether–when I was cleaning out her kitchen, just weeks after her death. That first winter, I had brought them home and put them away. I hadn’t looked at them since.
And then, that March, I got an idea that maybe we could make that first Passover without Dot at my house, instead. It wouldn’t be like hers. No way. But then I reached for her holiday binder and inside was a piece of small notebook paper. And on that small notebook paper: How to prepare Passover for 20; How many briskets and what sizes you need; how many kugels; how to arrange everything. I knew she had written it for herself, but I felt like it was written for me, and so I decided to use it. We emailed invitations to family members in which we proclaimed the First Annual Dorothy Walters Memorial Passover Seder.
It’s continued to be a tradition. A few weeks ago, when there was still so much snow on the ground that spring seemed impossible, I emailed out the invitations once again. Passover is the one time a year we see my husband’s cousin and his wife, because they always came to Passover when Dot was still here. My parents come. My sister and her family come. My brother-in-law and his wife come. Sometimes other people come. The strays, my mother-in-law used to like to call them. Everyone needs a place for Passover, she insisted, and if she heard of anyone needing a place, she invited them, which is why there was a note in the cookbook explaining how to make Passover for 20. Frankly, I usually have between 14 and 18 guests. “Not a real Passover if fewer than 20 come,” my mother-in-law used to say.
We still use her same dishes. The blue rectangular baking dish she probably had since being a newlywed herself is for the potato kugel. I grab one of her baskets to hold the popovers. I take out her wooden board that holds the brisket perfectly, the juices running down the sides, held in firmly by the lip. I set the table with her brown earthenware, pull out her candelabras, the stained haggadahs that are still in pretty good shape. I work for days, cleaning the house and cooking as much of the food in advance as I can–but not the potato kugels–because, she told me more than once, you always make those the same day.
On Friday, April 3, we’ll have the seventh annual Dorothy Walters Memorial Passover Seder. It will have the same food. It will have the same people. It will have the same dishes. It just won’t have her.