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Inside the Obamas' White House Seder

Preparing dinner for 25 isn't much of a challenge for me. Passover Seder for 25? A bit more work with all the symbolic foods, but I've been hosting Seders for years now. In fact, anything less than 20 guests seems a bit small. But cooking Passover Seder for 25 at the White House?
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Preparing dinner for 25 isn't much of a challenge for me.

Passover Seder for 25? A bit more work with all the symbolic foods, but I've been hosting Seders for years now. In fact, anything less than 20 guests seems a bit small.

But cooking Passover Seder for 25 at the White House?

Okay, now you've got me. And yet, in 2014 and 2015, that is what I did as the guest chef for the White House Seder.

Hosted by the president and first lady, the annual Seder is a private event with about 25 close friends and staffers, current and former. As the story goes, it started in 2008 on the campaign trail when three Jewish staffers gathered in a hotel room with a box of matzah, a bottle of Manischewitz wine and Maxwell House-published haggadahs (the books which contain the text for the Seder service) for an improvised Seder. Somehow then-Senator Obama heard about it and joined in.

It's now almost legendary, but apparently true, that at the end of that Seder, when the ever-wandering Jewish people traditionally say "Next year in Jerusalem!" the candidate raised his glass and said, "Next year in the White House!" Moreover he committed to doing a Seder every year in the presidential residence if he won. So along with the Obama victory came an annual Seder -- still using the iconic Maxwell House haggadah as a guide for the service portion of the gathering.

For the first several years, the Seder meal featured traditional Ashkenazic or Eastern European dishes based on family recipes from the participants, heavy on brisket and potatoes. But given Mrs. Obama's passion for healthy eating, in 2014 she became interested in adding some new dishes heavier on green and lighter on calories. That led to the creation of a guest chef spot which led to a phone call to me from the then-Jewish outreach person for the White House, Matt Nosanchuk, who knew me as director of the Jewish Food Experience project.

What you might want to know at this point is that I'm what people call a home cook or self-taught. I have not attended culinary school nor, in fact, a real cooking class, although I now often teach them. I've just been cooking for as long as I can remember. For my seventh birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls, unknowingly starting my ever-expanding cookbook collection and setting me on the road to the White House.

So, on a rainy morning in April 2014, I made my first trip to the White House ... basement, that is. I was welcomed by the amazingly capable Chef Cristeta Comerford and her staff in a shiny, stainless-steel-filled kitchen that was so much smaller than I imagined. (Yes, the same kitchen where State dinners for hundreds are prepared.)

As others worked around me, I prepared my chicken with olives and preserved lemons, rolled some matzah balls and helped with another chef's kale-quinoa salad. I got to sneak out (escorted, of course) and take pictures in the beautifully set dining room. Then I spent most of the evening with Chef Comerford behind a very large screen, plating individual and buffet dishes for the wait staff to whisk away.

I couldn't hear much of what was happening in the nearby dining room except occasionally the president's voice stood out as he laughed or spoke. That did send chills through me as I knew he was reading the same words as Jews and their guests all over the world read that same evening and for hundreds of years before. But I have to admit I was disappointed there was not an opportunity to meet the president or first lady.

That changed with a return engagement in 2015. Not only was I invited back, but I was offered to have more of an influence on the menu. So I added more seasonal vegetables and flavors from my Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) background including Moroccan Haroset Balls of dried fruit and nuts. (One of the Seder's symbolic foods, haroset recalls the many clay bricks that the Hebrew slaves were forced to make and use as workers for Pharaoh.)

This time upon my arrival, I was given an assistant and several menu items to prepare while others worked around me. My Sephardic ancestors would have approved when the first thing I did was to start the traditional hard-cooked eggs, huevos haminados, that sat simmering for nearly eight hours on a bed of onion peels with lots of black peppercorns and a layer of olive oil in the water. And my little Russian grandmother? She would have had a lot to say about my making horseradish in a food processor and quenelles of herb-filled gefilte fish, although no doubt she would have loved the flavors.

Later in the day, after the food was moved upstairs, I again worked with Chef Comerford on plating. Once more I shivered as I heard the president's deep voice and laughter sometimes standing out as the group worked its way through the haggadah.

This time, I was invited to stand by the buffet table, talking with guests about the food and answering questions as people lined up for the main course. The First Lady reached across the table to welcome me back (yes!) and wanted to hear all about the colorful vegetable dishes with seasonal ingredients.

And the president? Before dinner, he greeted me with a handshake and a good exchange about my dual passions of food and film as vehicles for building cultural understanding. Then, for dessert, the sweetest treat of all: a selfie with the president at his request. Oh my! I didn't even have my phone nearby, but a quick-thinking waiter took one picture, just one, and we both have eyes open and smiles on our faces.

True to his 2008 promise, President Obama has held a Seder in the White House every year. To be honest, however, I was a bit surprised as well as deeply moved by how much the Seders seemed to mean to both of the Obamas and how much they clearly enjoy participating.

As for me, after the first Seder guest chef appearance, someone told me I could now check cooking at the White House off of my bucket list. Honestly, it never was on that list because I never imagined such an honor, twice cooking seder in the president's home.

This blog is cross-posted on Fig Tree & Vine, where the recipe for the Moroccan Haroset Balls Susan made in the White House can be found. Fig Tree & Vine, a modern Jewish lifestyle site featuring additional Passover recipes and modern artisanal takes on traditional Passover items such as Seder plates and Passover linens.

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