For the last few years we’ve cooked Passover dinner at Craigie on Main, and this year is no different. We’ll be serving my take—the Craigie take—on this Jewish holiday Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26th and 27th. Before then, I wanted to write a bit about why we’ve come to celebrate this somewhat unconventional restaurant holiday the way that we do.
Of course it starts with my family. Both my parents are Jewish. Neither is very religious, but Judaism has always been important to us.
My father’s family immigrated to the US from Poland in between the World Wars and settled in the Bronx. My grandfather worked as a tailor, and they were dirt poor. (My father used to tell me stories of how he shared a room with his little brother and his grandmother as a kid.) My grandfather died when my dad was still a teenager, and because I grew up in Newton, MA, while the rest of that side of the family stayed in New York, I didn’t see them all that much.
This is why my Jewish traditions come mainly from my mother’s half of the family. I had a very special relationship with her parents, Charlie and Hannah—but when it came to food, it was especially Hannah, who I called Baba Hannah. (Her picture is hanging in the kitchen of Craigie on Main today.)
Charlie’s family had owned a well-known shoe store in downtown Boston while Baba Hannah was a southern Jew, born and bred in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (She certainly talked like it—spouting Yiddish at me with a southern accent.) She was five foot two, but a total terror. She completely ruled the house, and especially the kitchen. She loved her grandchildren like crazy.
Charlie and Hannah lived in Brookline, so we saw them all the time. I watched baseball with my grandfather and cooked with my grandmother. And Baba Hannah cooked. I don’t think she loved cooking for the sake of cooking, but she certainly got joy out of cooking for her family. And I loved to help. I was the kid who was always making his family breakfast. I used to call my parents at work when I was ten years old and say: “I have a chicken in the oven. You’re coming home for dinner in a half hour.”
In Baba Hannah’s kitchen I whipped egg whites for meringue frostings on her lemon sponge cake and helped shape the matzo balls for Passover Seder. I remember the taste of her split pea soup and the smell of her brisket. It was awesome and I still crave them. Nothing Baba Hannah cooked came out of left field. But she made it and it was good and it was a great excuse for our family to come together. It was the best time I had around food.
I was in college when my grandparents passed away. Afterward, there were a couple years when the holidays just didn’t get celebrated. My grandmother had always been in charge of the cooking and the planning and without her, my mom and her brother just didn’t know what to do. We made half-assed attempts for a few years, getting the family together with takeout from Baker’s Best, but the vibe was all wrong. We all felt it. Passover wasn’t what it was supposed to be and I desperately wanted to change this.
Years later, after I had opened the Craigie Street Bistrot and was missing all the Jewish holidays not because we didn’t know what to do but because I was always working, my mom had an idea:
“Tony, why don’t we cook Passover here?”
I laughed. “What the hell are you talking about? We cook pork, Mom. How could I cook Passover?”
“Make it your take on Passover,” she said.
So I started to read: about the holiday, the traditions, and the food that has so much symbolism and sentimentality attached. At its most basic, Passover is the celebration of the ancient Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. You can dive into the religious angle all you want, but for me the message is about remembering and acknowledging both the good and bad of humanity. It’s a celebration of peace and freedom. It’s about the plagues, sure—but Passover can be much more inclusive.
As I read, I realized the diversity in the food of Passover, too—if you start looking at the ways others cook for it around the world. It was liberating.
Passover didn’t have to be the Ashkenazi version of haroseth made from apples and walnuts. There didn’t have to be horseradish, beets, or asparagus. The meal didn’t need to hinge on brisket. I began to think about the Sephardic versions of haroseth, made with dried fruit, nuts, and wine. I read about communities in the Middle East that eat rice during Passover—spiked with tons of dates, almonds, spring garlic and saffron. All of a sudden Passover dinner read like a pretty interesting menu.
And so at Craigie on Main, during Passover, we pay homage to what I grew up with. We also make new interpretations inspired by flavors from places like Morocco, India, and Tunisia. There are matzo balls, of course. (One year I made them with bone marrow, which seemed like a very Craigie thing to do.) We’ve done interpretations of Baba Hannah’s split pea soup. There’ve been haroseth-braised lamb shanks, schmaltz-poached dayboat halibut, braised kobe beef brisket. We make matzo from scratch, using emmer wheat ground for us by Anson Mills.
And everyone is welcome. We have families that whip out their Haggadahs at the table, while others haven’t celebrated the holiday in years, finding it easier to come together at a restaurant than at home. We also have folks who don’t know what to make of the Seder plate we set on each table, and that’s okay. The main thing is that everyone is happy—especially me. Passover always makes for a dynamic night.
Of course it’s important to remember that we aren’t a kosher kitchen, and won’t pretend to be. We won’t serve pork for Passover—but various forms of pig will still be hanging out in the kitchen.