Growing up we always had a ham alongside our turkey at Thanksgiving. And then one year we didn't. Maybe we got a bigger turkey that year, or that might have been the year we added a fish dish. It wasn't until years later that I learned that my Grandpa Harold liked the ham. Once he died, so did the tradition of Thanksgiving ham. As I clear the seder table on Jeff's and my fourth Passover together -- once while dating, when we were engaged, and now twice since we've been married -- I've started to create new traditions with him. Eli didn't like my parsnip puree, so this year I swapped it for mashed potatoes. Jeff liked my smoke trout salad enough, but he craved the jarred gefilte fish that he grew up with, as did my friend Suzanne. So gefilte fish is in, smoked trout salad, out. He's not a huge fan of my chopped liver and it's a bit of an ordeal to make, so this year I thought I would switch it up - try something new. But then my sister chimed in - she loved the chopped liver. And so did Suzanne's husband Daniel. So that tradition remains.
We Jews have been kicked out of many a nation in our 5,777 years on earth. Passover commemorates our exodus from slavery in Egypt. We eat matzo to remind us of the haste with which we left - leaving no time for the dough to rise. We eat maror (bitter herbs) to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. And we eat haroset (a sweet mixture of chopped apples, walnuts and red wine) to remind us of the mortar used to make bricks during this period of Egyptian slavery. But what really intrigues me are the stories of Sephardic Jews. Americans remember 1492 as the time that Spain sent explorers here. But it also marked the Spanish Inquisition, a time when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert Catholicism or leave Spain. Many Jews converted but maintained their Jewish traditions in secret. Then in the hundreds of years that ensued, some non-Jews found themselves lighting candles on Friday nights - perhaps a holdover from when their ancestors were Jews celebrating Shabbat.
Years ago I took a cooking class with Marcella Hazan, a doyenne of Italian cookbooks. She was joined by her husband, and I was struck by how much he looked like my father. Over the course of the few days that she taught us how to make homemade pasta, amazing risotto and other traditional Italian dishes at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, I bugged her husband about his lineage. Because everyone wants to hear that they remind you of their father. He stood of modest height but commanded the room with the same piercing blue eyes, cappuccino-colored skin and receding soft grey hair that my father had. He kept telling me he was Italian and that his family had always lived in Italy. Until he finally confessed that they immigrated from Spain in the late 1400s. Of course. His family had to have been Jewish and fled from the Inquisition. He was my people.
We don't always know where our traditions came from, but we continue them because they're what we know, and because they connect us to the past. When my dad died, I started drinking bourbon. It reminded me of him, and it warmed me over when I was otherwise numb. My friend Harriet Leibowitz and her family mark the anniversary of her father's death - his yahrzeit - by going to the Colonnade, an Atlanta institution, for fried chicken livers and scotch, which was his favorite.
I love my chopped liver. And I'm glad it's still in the rotation of traditions for Passover. But - of course - it's not really mine. I copied it from my friend, Chef Shaun Doty (Mumbo Jumbo, MidCity Cuisine, Shaun's, Bantam & Biddy, The Federal). At least I thought I did. Years later I was talking about the recipe with one of his proteges, Rob Phalen (One Eared Stag, Mary Hoopa's House of Fried Chicken & Oysters), who made it nightly when he worked for Shaun. His recipe included caramelized onions, which I didn't remember it having but which I now include in mine. Then I was talking with Shaun's partner's wife, my dear friend Gracie Gummere, who told me that her husband Lance had created it to begin with. But I remember him adding bacon to his when he made it at The Shed at Glenwood. Regardless - this recipe has been passed down, tweaked and embraced by many. It's a rock star among hors d'oeuvres.
1 Lb Chicken Livers (cleaned and chopped)
1 Onion chopped
4 T Olive Oil, split
6 hard boiled eggs (chopped)
1/2 C mayonnaise, which is 2 egg yolks, T of apple cider vinegar, C olive oil
2 T Parsley, chopped
You don't have to make homemade mayonnaise - but if you can, that makes you a rock star among home cooks. To make the mayonnaise, drop the egg yolks in a Cuisinart with the vinegar (you can also squeeze 1/2 lemon - you just need the acid). Turn on the blades and keep going. Blend the yolks and acid until the mixture starts to pale in color. Then slowly drizzle the olive oil while the engine is running. You're emulsifying and you can't whip enough air in - but you can pour too much oil in too quickly, which will make it "break." The key is the slow drizzle and then wait a few seconds. Then slow drizzle and wait until it starts to look like mayonnaise.
In a heavy bottom pan, heat 2 T olive oil to high. Add the onion and salt and turn the heat down to medium low and sweat them for about 45 minutes. Push the onions to the side and turn the heat to high. Add two more T of olive oil and then add chicken livers. You want to get as much sear as you can. Mix and sear. Take pan off the heat. Let cool for a few minutes.
Combine the mayonnaise with the copped eggs, salt, pepper and chopped parsley. Fold the egg salad in with the seared livers and caramelized onions. Put in a serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and top with finishing salt.