I feel completely inadequate when it comes to holiday celebrations. I’m not such a slouch in the kitchen, but hosting a big holiday meal or Seder for family and friends is something that seems downright terrifying. It’s easy to prepare and bring a homemade dish or a cake to someone else’s home, but so far I haven’t been able to muster any of the kitchen confidence, organization and leadership skills it seems are required to pull the whole thing off single-handedly. It appears so effortless for my mother, the rebbetzin, who seems to have those innate grown-up skills and who becomes an organized cooking machine three weeks before any holiday. And while my rabbi dad is a great role model, those are big shoes to fill. How could I possibly infuse my celebrations with the same killer combination of dynamism and knowledge? Is there such a thing as a feminist “balabusta”? And how do I create my own versions of Jewish celebrations (I have small kids) with pride and not fear?
HELPLESS ON HOLIDAYS
The Mamele replies:
Oh, honey, ease up on yourself. You needn’t be a carbon copy of your mom and dad; in fact, you’ll find it freeing to put your own stamp on holidays in your home. As you may know from my column, I was terrified to start leading the Seder after my dad died. But once I actually sat down to plan the tekes, the ceremony, I felt the world open up. I loved researching what other families did, looking at different Haggadot, pondering various games and crafts. Having to consider exactly what I thought was the essential core of the holiday — what were the lessons I wanted my kids to come away with — was fulfilling for me as a parent and as a Jew. I’d been on autopilot for so long, letting my parents lead, that I’d lost touch with the real, visceral meaning of the holiday. And I saw that there are a lot of ways to explore spirituality and meaning. Your parents’ way may not be your way. (And now that I have my own Seder template, I can zhuzh it every year, but the bulk of the work is done.)
As for cooking, the same “cut yourself a break” advice applies. Allow me to point out that Julia Child had no kids. It’s hard to keep risotto at a constant stir when one child is beating the other over the head with a xylophone. When your kids are older, you can be more ambitious, but for now, develop a repertoire of easy crowd-friendly recipes. Forget finesse; that’s for Top Chef contestants. Roasting is so your friend: roasted potatoes with rosemary; roasted carrots and parsnips, perhaps with an orange glaze; roasted asparagus with garlic and grated lemon rind. They look pretty and require almost no precision or attention once you’ve popped them in the oven. I love the recipes and user comments on Epicurious.com; there’s even a search category called “quick & easy.” Take a page from your mom’s playbook and do some cooking ahead of time; flatter her by asking if she can suggest some recipes that keep or freeze well. Enlist family members to bring a few side dishes; you use the term “single-handedly” in your letter, but people really do like to help! Let them. If your husband, like mine, views grill tongs as a large and manly appendage, work it. Get an easy, good grilling book like Steve Raichlen’s “How to Grill” and put him in charge of the meat, if you do meat. Or do a chicken that you can stuff some lemons in and toss in the oven and ignore. Soups are good because you can often do them ahead and just warm ’em up on the stovetop and for some reason people think they’re impressive. Skip the cake for dessert; you’ve got enough going on. Instead, make cookies or brownies ahead of time, with your kids, while you talk about what the holiday means to you and how they can be your super-excellent big helpers. And if you possibly can, pay somebody to clean your house. If that’s a non-starter, here’s my trick from a professional organizer friend: clean only the floors and surfaces (countertops, bathroom sink) and stash as much clutter as you can in another room. When people see an uncluttered countertop or coffee table, they think “ooh, clean!” Put some flowers in the bathroom. Done.
You clearly have self-awareness; you know your biggest obstacle is your lack of confidence. So work on keeping your expectations low. Remember that the important part of hosting is making your family and friends feel welcome; think of the meaning of the holiday, and share it with your kids. Enjoy being together. The more you entertain, the easier it gets.
Marjorie Ingall writes The East Village Mamele column for the Forward and is a contributing writer at Self magazine. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Ms., Glamour, Parents, Budget Travel, Food & Wine, Wired and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and health editor. She is the author of a humor book, “The Field Guild to North American Males” (Owl Books, 1997), the co-author of a sex-ed book for teenagers, “Smart Sex” (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and a former writer/producer at the Oxygen TV network.