Every Purim was a time of great joy on Magnolia Street, but this year was going to be special. Of course it was a time for reading Megilat Esther and for giving matanot la-evyonim, gifts to the poor, and certainly it was a time for celebrating with the Purim seudah, the special Purim feast, but for the Margolis and Steiner clans, this year was going to be all about the mishloach manot.
You know the mishloach manot. They’re the gifts of food we give one to another on Purim. On Magnolia Street children usually delivered them in costume. Last year, the Margolis kids were dressed up as cowboys and their neighbors the Steiners were Indians. They often coordinated their themes, as they were cousins. Donny Margolis and Yael Steiner were twins, and no two siblings were closer. Yael moved to Magnolia Street three years after she married Marty Steiner, and Donny followed five years later after he and his wife Lilly had their second child and needed more space. They were always in each other’s houses, and their children migrated back and forth with an open door policy. They were as close as peas in a pod.
Yael knew that this had been a tough year for her brother and his family. Donny had been going through some health issues, but he had been doing better recently. Still, it had been a challenging time at the Margolises, and since her own life had been going so smoothly, thank God, Yael wanted to make them something special for mishloach manot this Purim, something that would make her brother smile. After all, mishloach manot was a way to demonstrate love and friendship between Jews, and her relationship with her brother was something she treasured.
What Donny loved more than all other foods was gefilte fish. Not just any gefilte, but the home made variety. So Yael decided that, despite the fact that she hated to eat fish, and even the smell of it made her nauseous, she would cook her brother the best gefilte fish he had ever eaten in his life. She saw an interesting recipe in the new cookbook, Killer Kosher Klassics, and she was dying to try it. So Yael went and purchased all the ingredients, and just after megila reading Purim morning she set to work.
Donny knew that the last year had been difficult in the Steiner house. Marty had been out of work a few months, and although now he was gainfully employed, it had put a lot of stress on the rest of the family. Everything was great at the Margolises, and Donny wanted a way to show his sister and her family just how much they cared. He knew that the purpose of mishloach manot was to provide something to eat at the Purim seudah, so he came up with a great idea. What Yael loved to eat most in the world was matzoh ball soup. She would sell her first born for a really good bowl, just the way their Bubbe used to make it. So he would surprise her with a whole pot of it for her seudah. And it would be Bubbe’s original recipe. Nothing says how much you care as much as a good bowl of soup. Donny made the chicken broth on Taanit Esther—with full chicken fat, just the way Bubbe used to—and waited to make the matzoh balls until Purim morning so that they would be fresh for the seudah.
She started with the onions, carrots, and parsnip, boiling them with water and sugar. She placed the fish heads, bones, and skin in a saucepan, added water and salt, and brought it to a boil. As it began to bubble she could smell the fish pervading the room, but she tried to keep it together. It was when she ground up the carp, whitefish, and pike in a bowl that Yael truly began to feel queezy.
He already had the water boiling for the matzoh balls when he went to beat the eggs into the mixing bowl with the oil and the seasonings. He began to fold in the matzoh meal, and he could feel the proper consistency developing. Donny had flashbacks to making this recipe with his Bubbe in her kitchen in Washington Heights when he was a little boy. Such pleasant memories. He placed the bowl in the refrigerator for it to sit for two hours.
The smell was full blast now. Yael had made the fish patties with gluten-free flour and all the spices and had placed them into the simmering fish stock. All she had to do now was let it sit for twenty minutes. But could she last that long? The smell was pervasive. Wasn’t there a legend that Queen Esther had a greenish complexion? If it was true, Yael definitely knew whom she should dress up as for the seudah. All she needed was the crown.
The water was boiling, and Donny began to roll the batter into ping pong-sized balls and drop them into the water. It was such a simple foolproof recipe. Already he could see a few of the matzoh balls rising to the top of the water, the true sign that his venture had been a success. He was almost done. That was when he licked the batter off his fingers. That was his one true mistake.
The gefilte fish looked beautiful. Yael had arranged them on a platter and poured a little of the extra stock over them for taste. She decorated the platter with carrots and even put the fish head in the center of the platter and decorated the eyes with carrots. She added horseradish on the side so there would be two separate brachot on the platter, even though technically the carrots would have met that requirement. It was beautiful. Yael was relatively certain she would never eat again.
When Donny was diagnosed with gluten intolerance, the gastroenterologist had warned him that even the smallest amount of flour could set him off. Donny always doubted that, but after licking the matzoh ball batter, he was convinced. Waves of cramping erupted in his belly. It was not a good feeling. He would not be eating any rice flour hamentashen—or anything for that matter—for the foreseeable future.
Noam and Meira Steiner were dressed as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia when they crossed Magnolia Street with their mother to deliver the gefilte fish. Eitan and Nava Margolis were dressed as Darth Vader and Darth Sidius as they left their front door with their father to bring over the soup.
Donny and Yael met on the Margolis’ lawn. Each saw what the other had prepared and each eyed each other with a wan smile. Yael saw Donny wincing in pain with his hand on his midsection and assumed what had happened. Donny saw what Yael had made and understood why she looked a bit green. They hugged on the snow covered lawn as they understood the true meaning of mishloach manot.
“Next year,” Yael said, “let’s buy each other identical fruit baskets.”
“Amen to that,” Donny agreed. “But no mango, please. It gives me gas.”
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics and would prefer a nice bowl of matzoh ball soup to gefilte fish any day.
By Larry Stiefel