Monday, March 29, 2010

Adventures in Passover Shopping

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m not a shopper. It’s a small thing, really, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Whether it is food, clothing, or something else, my goal is to go in, get what I need, and get out as quickly as possible so I can get on with whatever it is I really want to be doing that day. Anything that slows me down is agitating.

Unsurprisingly, shopping for Thanksgiving is not my favorite thing in the world. I know the parking lot will be crowded, the store will be packed, and the checkout lines will be slow, but at least I’m confident that, with a bit of patience, eventually I will escape with everything I need. Not so with Passover.

Sure, in the days before Passover the store won’t be as crowded as it is leading up to Thanksgiving, but, depending on its proximity to Easter, it may not be a walk in the park, either. But, for me at least, the true tension has always been in wondering how many stores I will need to visit to get everything I need. Often, the trip involves at least one stop for staples such as chicken broth, another stop for various items the first store didn’t have in stock, and a third stop at one of the shrinking number of delis still in existence that carries chopped liver.

For those of you accustomed to the US Thanksgiving traditions, consider what it would be like if you arrived at the store a day or two before Thanksgiving and found you could get most of the things you wanted, but there were no turkeys or cranberries. On Passover, it’s worse. If you can’t get a brisket, that may feel like not getting a turkey on Thanksgiving, but you can substitute a chicken or something else for the main course.

However, the Passover meal isn’t equivalent to Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a religious holiday during which we remember our time as slaves in Egypt and celebrate our freedom. Some of the foods associated with the holiday, like the foods associated with Thanksgiving in the US, are purely traditional. Brisket and gefilte fish fall into this category.

On the other hand, in Hebrew the holiday is “Pesach,” which means “order.” As such, there are certain things we’re supposed to do in a certain order, such as eating bitter herbs with matzo. We may exercise some discretion in our choice of which bitter herbs to use, but the matzo needs to be there, it must be kosher for Passover, and there needs to be a lamb shank bone on the seder plate.

When I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, I shopped at a local market. Some years they seemed to have everything I needed, and other years they didn’t, but they were always very helpful. Once, when I asked for brisket, the butcher shook his head, thought a moment, then asked me how many pounds I wanted it to be. He asked me to wait a moment, wheeled a side of beef out of the walk-in refrigerator, went zip-zip-zip with a knife, and plopped a nice brisket on the scale, saying, “Here you go!” In these days of pre-packaged meat, I believe that may be the first, and the last, time I’ve ever had the chance to see a real butcher in action. Similarly, in years when there were no lamb shank bones set aside, they always managed to scrounge something up for me.

Since then, I have moved to Marin County, which is, I’ve been told, the county with the largest percentage of Jews in the state. So you would think the stores here would know a thing or two about Passover. Unfortunately, although they gamely put out a display with some matzo and other niceties, they just don’t seem to have caught on to some of the finer points. Neither Lucky nor Safeway seem to have twigged to the notion that every Spring people come up to the meat counter to ask for a brisket and a lamb shank bone.

As a result, it has become a tradition for me to improvise by having a plan for a non-brisket dinner in my mind just in case, and to seek out the cheapest package of bone-in lamb I can find, so I can cut the meat off and pretend the bone is a shank. Not exactly kosher, but it’s closer to the real deal than the alternative of beets I recently heard is used by vegetarians to symbolize lamb’s blood in its place. And pity the poor man I encountered one year, whose wife sent him to the store in search of schmaltz, absolutely required for her chopped liver recipe, but unheard of in Safeway.

This year, finally, I did something I have never done before. Indeed, it had never before occurred to me. This year, I shopped at a particular store for no reason other than I had heard it was owned by Jews. Yes, I went to Mollie Stone’s, and there I found the answer to my prayers. There was chopped liver in the deli case, piles of brisket in the meat department, kosher-for-Passover horseradish in both the red and white varieties, cases of chicken broth – on sale no less! – you get the picture. Everything all under one roof.

The guy at the meat counter didn’t look at me funny when I shyly asked for a lamb bone. Instead, he said, “Of course!” and immediately handed one over. Free of charge. The guy at the check-out lane glanced over my items, recognized what they were for, and asked if there was something in Hebrew he could say that would be appropriate for others doing their holiday shopping. I recommended “chag sameach,” which he repeated several times and wrote down for future reference.

For the first time during my years of Passover shopping I felt like I’d been in a store that said, “Jews are welcome here!” It’s not like I’ve ever had an experience like my father did at a store in Idaho, where he asked for lox and was told, “Sorry, we’re out, all those Jews got it already.” But there is something so welcoming, that is such a relief, in knowing there is someplace I can go without worrying about whether they will have what I need or if they will look at me like I’m a nut when I ask. It’s a small thing, really, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.


  1. Thank you from Mollie Stones for the kind words!

  2. I LOVE shopping at Mollie Stones - the guys in the seafood department even grind up my fish of choice (with onions) for my homemade gefilte fish....its a pleasure to shop there!