The catered Seder

Kosher cooks make Passover meals for others

Staff writerMarch 24, 2010 

  • The eight-day observance, which starts at sundown Monday, commemorates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt, a departure so hasty that they had no time to let bread rise and had to make unleavened bread: matzo. Leavened products, anything that could become leavened, have to be used up or removed.

Last year for Passover, Leah Amler of Charlotte did something kind of radical: She had the full Seder (pronounced SAY-der). She had the table surrounded by 18 family and friends.

But she didn't cook it herself. She called Lisa Bixon, a kosher baker who has branched out into cooking Passover dinners.

Bixon did the whole menu - brisket, candied yams, potatoes in a garlic sauce, matzo stuffing and dessert - for about $275.

"She brought it over. I didn't even have to go get it," Amler said. "It was awesome. It was a major luxury."

For observant Jews, Passover, which starts Monday at sundown, is no easy holiday.

First, you have to clean, searching every nook - even pockets and the car - for the slightest trace of chametz, leavened food. You have to get rid of anything leavened, get approved food, get special plates, pots and utensils, even cover counters with foil or paper to make sure they are clean.

On top of all that, you have to cook a big meal for family and friends.

Amler is 64. Although she's quick to point out her health is good, Passover can still be quite an undertaking.

"The older you get, the harder it gets," she says. "I used to be able to clean my house in one day, now it takes me several days. And that's not Passover cleaning."

No wonder some Jewish cooks look for help.

That doesn't mean help is easy to find. There are kosher caterers, like Menachem Vorst of Kosher Charlotte, who won't touch Passover. It's too complicated.

Instead, a few home cooks step up, turning out the traditional dishes for small lists of paying friends.

In Chapel Hill, cookbook author Caroleena Barrow usually teaches Tuscan cooking at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. For Passover, she cooks briskets and matzo ball soup for a half-dozen families, delivering dinner for 10 for $250, including two sides and a salad.

Barrow admits her cooking isn't Glatt kosher, the purest level. Her kitchen isn't rabbi-approved. Not all Jews demand a fully kosher experience. Some just want a nice brisket and some Charoset to mark the season.

It's like Thanksgiving, she says. If you've had turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, you've had Thanksgiving. For Jews who don't keep kosher the rest of the year, the traditional dishes are enough.

"It's comfort," she says. "It's something you know and expect."

In Charlotte, Lisa Bixon's friends are starting to figure out what a help she can be.

Bixon is very observant. Her oldest son is a member of Lubavitch, a missionary Hasidic movement. He often works with resorts where Jewish families check in for the eight days of Passover to have everything done properly.

Bixon, who has six children, bakes kosher cakes and challah the rest of the year. When she needs to, she uses commercial kitchens at places such as the Jewish Community Center or Kosher Charlotte. Her business has grown by word of mouth.

"I've always been on the creative side," she said, "so I've always made parties for my kids and family."

Friends started asking for cakes, then friends of friends. Last year, people asked what she could do for Passover.

Last year, she did six dinners and she expects to do the same this year. She does side dishes as a la carte items, and she does whole meals, either a dinner for four with chicken, side dishes and a dessert for $150, or a deluxe dinner, with brisket, an extra side, two desserts and wine for $275.

She even provides the symbolic food for the Seder plate - the charred bones, roasted egg, bitter herbs and salt - packed into zipper bags, ready to go.

Leah Amler won't use Bixon's service this year. She is out of work and she's had to cut back. But she will miss it.

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com

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