Top Chef Host, food writer, and cookbook author Gail Simmons knows a thing or two about Passover, a holiday she’s been honoring since she was a child. Here, she shares with us her favorite childhood traditions, how she celebrates Passover as an adult, and why food is such an important ritual. Read on to learn what her favorite Passover dishes to make are, including two of her favorite Passover recipes from her new book, Bringing It Home.
What’s a favorite Passover tradition you’ve had since you were a child?
Ever since I was little I’ve loved setting the Passover Sedar table. It always seemed so elaborate and elegant at my mother’s house. I also always love making and setting out the Sedar Plate, a platter of 5-6 edible objects that gets placed in the center of the table. It helped explain all of the ceremonial food we eat on Passover, setting the meal apart from any other time of year.
Making matzo ball soup the way my mother did from scratch is still a must in my house. In addition, I still make brisket and baking my Aunt Sue’s chocolate meringue cookies for dessert. Even though I could make them any time, something about only eating them the week of Passover as a decadent treat, makes them taste even more special.
How do you celebrate Passover differently now?
The beauty of Passover to me is that no matter how fast-paced and complex our lives become, Passover basically stays the same. We set the table in the same way, cook more or less the same foods, sing the same songs and spend time together with family and friends. We may just celebrate slightly more casually than my parents did. For example, we don’t use the same fancy china and crystal anymore, but we still break out all our best dishes and serving ware!
Do you have any new Passover traditions?
The one major addition to Passover traditions which my mother brought to our table in the last several years — and which I have adopted is to place an orange in the center of the Sedar Plate. The story goes that while lecturing, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel was denounced by a man who said a woman belongs on the bimah (alter or podium of a synagogue) as much as an orange belong on the seder table. The story reminds us that there is still much work to be done to ensure everyone is included and heard.
What makes food such an important part of Passover?
Food helps tell the story of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt in the most tactile and relatable way. Important symbols like the bitter greens, the egg and the lamb shank bone on the Sedar Plate are clear signs of Spring, hope and renewal. Salt water stands in for tears and hardship, and matzo as the flat bread that couldn’t leaven due to the haste with which the Jews were forced to flee their persecutors. Most of all gathering with loved ones, and welcoming strangers, around the table to share a meal is a universal way to spread joy, peace, tolerance and kindness. There is no better common language than food!
Gail likes to honor Passover with her tried-and-true Not Your Mom’s Horseradish Brisket and Aunt Sue’s Chewy Dark Chocolate Meringue Cookies. Her other two favorite Passover dishes — Loaded Matzo Ball Soup and Peppery Greens with Tahini and Sumac Dressing — can be found in her new cookbook here.
What’s your favorite Passover tradition? Comment below!