Archive | April, 2012


26 Apr

I have decided that “making Passover” is my April “Forward From Fifty” activity because, honestly, making Passover is enough of an accomplishment for one month.  No one who made Passover should be expected to do anything else in April.

True, I have made Passover more than twenty times, so there’s no way I can claim it either as something new or as something that I’ve always wanted to try.  But no one who made Passover should be expected to do anything else in April.

Those of you who “make Passover” are nodding vigorously in agreement, and those of you who don’t are saying to yourselves, “I thought Passover was a holiday.  How can you possibly ‘make’ a holiday? Don’t you mean ‘celebrate’ rather than ‘make’? It sounds like you’re talking about a bowel movement.”

“Making Passover” basically means “getting ready for Passover.”  One has to get ready for Passover before one can celebrate it.  Sadly, getting ready does not mean sitting quietly, focusing on one’s breathing, and thinking happy thoughts about Passover.

Getting ready for Passover means removing all traces of chametz, or leavened products, from one’s home.

In practice, in my house at least, it’s a multi-day, five-step process:

  1. Eat or give away all food that contains (or might contain) chametz.
  2. Pack up the regular dishes, silverware, pots and pans (which have been used with chametz all year, and are, therefore, not “kosher for Passover”), and shlep them to the basement.
  3. Thoroughly clean the kitchen, dining room, and anywhere else in the house that chametz might have been eaten (in my house, this includes everywhere except the basement.  My kids routinely eat in their bedrooms, and have even been known to take snacks into the bathroom, because sometimes you just need that extra boost of energy in between washing your face and smearing on your pimple cream).
  4. Cover all surfaces that might have come in contact with chametz (shelves, counters and tables), and then
  5. Schlep the boxes of Passover dishes up from the basement and unpack them.

All of the above has to be done by the morning of the day that Passover starts (Jewish holidays start at sundown; this year, Passover started at sundown on Friday, April 7, so all cleaning and covering had to be done by Friday morning.).  Once the kitchen has been made kosher for Passover, or Pesadich, the cooking can commence.  Because, of course, Passover is ushered in with a really big meal, the Seder.

After more than twenty years, I have making Passover down to a science, and I have the indispensable help of my cleaning lady and her sister, as well as Peter and the sons to do the schlepping part, but there’s no way around it – making Passover is a lot of work.

Plus, due to some law of nature that probably has a name, something else always goes wrong somewhere between step 2 and serving the Seder meal.

One year, our au pair quit two weeks before Passover.

One very, very rainy year, the day before Passover, I opened the door to the basement, ready for step 5 – schlepping up boxes of Passover dishes – and was confronted with a lake where my basement had once been.  I stood at the top of the basement stairs cursing God and nature as odd bits of flotsam bobbed merrily by down below.  For a small fortune, four dudes with water vacs and giant fans arrived that day and attacked my basement as if it were a small, water-logged country and they were the Marines, making an amphibious landing.  They vacuumed and vacuumed, set up their fans, and then, just as a dry floor began to appear, the head Marine called me down into the basement to show me that the water was coming in through the walls because the ground outside was so saturated.  I still had to pay them the hundreds and hundreds of dollars, but by the time they left, a half-inch of water had already re-accumulated.  Fortunately, this very expensive parting of my personal Red Sea gave me a chance to at least get the boxes of Passover dishes out of the basement.

One year, also the day before Passover, the washing machine decided to stop working.  You might not think a broken washing machine would impact Passover, but, believe me, it does.

One year, only hours before the Seder, as I was wrestling an uncooked turkey into my roasting pan, my friend Jennifer called me because she needed a ride to the hospital for emergency surgery.  I stuck the turkey back in the fridge, took Jennifer to the hospital, and stayed with her until her husband could make it out from the city.

This year, the Passover hilarity began on Wednesday morning, when, still half-asleep, I reached my hand into the dog food bag, feeling around for the scoop, and encountered something soft and furry.  Not thinking straight (it was very early in the morning) I looked into the bag.  And saw a mouse.  Which I had touched.

This is NOT my mouse, because I was way too busy screaming to ever think of taking a picture, but I thought it made a nice visual.

I dropped the dog food bag and commenced trying to get both of my feet off of the floor, while screaming, “Peter! Peter! Peter! Peter!”

Peter did not come rushing to my aid because, he explained later, he was in the middle of shaving.

By the time he strolled calmly out into the hall, my screams had pierced through the closed doors of my children’s bedrooms, and into their sleeping brains. So the whole family was present as I pointed at the dog food bag and said, hysteria barely under control, “there’s a mouse in there.”

Meanwhile, the dog, who had been waiting not-so-patiently to be fed, had worked herself up into a doggy lather.  Breakfast – all seven seconds of it – is the pinnacle of her morning, and something had gone inexplicably wrong.  There was her dish, there was the bag of food, there was the woman who takes the food from the bag and puts it into the dish…but food was not being put into the dish!

Bark! Bark! Bark!

With Goldie barked furiously, the cat decided he needed to get in on the action.  He commended meowing.

Peter opened the dog food bag and peered in.  “Yep,” he said.  “It’s a mouse.”  He showed it to the cat, who sniffed disinterestedly at the bag, looked at me, and meowed.

(Bark! Bark! Bark!)

“Can I see it?” my son asked.

(Bark! Bark! Bark!)

Peter showed him the mouse.

“Aww,” Noah said.  “It’s so cute.”

(Bark! Bark! Bark!)

“What do you want me to do with it?” Peter asked.  As though there were options.

“Get rid of it!” I screamed, flapping my hands.  “Get it out of the house!”

(Bark! Bark! Bark!)

We had a bit of a back-and-forth at this point, because Peter didn’t feel it was quite as urgent as I did that he get the mouse out of the house.  I’m not sure exactly what he thought was a reasonable time frame –  after he’d had breakfast? sometime later that day? by June? – but I wanted the mouse out of my house immediately.

As the bag of dog food with the mouse was being carried out of the house, the dog began to wail and droop, and I thought she might just vomit from distress.

Since I didn’t want to add cleaning up dog vomit to my long Passover To Do list, I grabbed her bowl from where I’d dropped it, opened a pouch of cat food, and fed her that.  Then I fed the cat.

Peter returned, still carrying the dog food bag.  He proudly explained that he had shaken the mouse out of the bag, but had been able to save several scoops’ worth of dog food.

I nodded and smiled as though I really appreciated the heroic way he’d just saved us fifteen cents, but really I was thinking, “mouse poop. You brought me a bag of dog food mixed with mouse poop.”  I deposited the bag directly into the kitchen garbage. 

I noticed, as I threw the dog food bag away, that there was an odor in the kitchen – a vaguely unpleasant smell, reminiscent of stinky feet combined with cat pee.

“Must be something in the garbage,” I said to myself, “or maybe the cat box needs to be changed.”  I added “take out the garbage” and “change cat box” to my To Do list.

By noontime, when Zulma and Claudia and I were scheduled to tackle the kitchen, it had gotten noticeably stinkier.

“Do you smell a bad smell?” I asked.  Claudia nodded vigorously, wrinkling her nose.  “Like throw up,” she said.

We sniffed around, eventually settling on the fridge as the smell’s source.  I checked all of the fridge and freezer contents, but nothing seemed to be rotting or brewing mold.  What little was left in my fridge after the Great Chametz Removal all appeared to be completely edible.  But the stink was definitely intensifying.

A quick bit of Internet research suggested that there might be something in the drip pan, which is located underneath the refrigerator.  A drip pan occasionally accumulates water, which, when bacteria is introduced into it, can stink.  I would have to push the refrigerator away from the wall and locate the drip pan.

My refrigerator is a very tall, very heavy, cabinet-depth model that is not a built-in, but is meant to look like one.  It also has one of those water dispenser things on the front, but it does not have wheels on the bottom.

All this means that it took quite a bit of effort for Zulma and me, together, to push the fridge away from the wall.  And, in the process, the copper tubing that brings water into the fridge from the pipes got bent.  And got a tiny little crack in it.  And began to spray water all over the kitchen.

Enveloped in a miasma of rotten meat-anal gland smell while being steadily showered with water, I could have sworn I’d stumbled into a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy.  I wanted to call, “Cut!”

Instead, I stomped down into the basement, located the shut-off valve for the refrigerator water supply, shut it off, stomped back upstairs, and called the plumber and GE customer service.

The plumber said he could send someone over that afternoon.  The GE service lady said they could have someone come out on Friday between 1 and 5.  I had a brief vision of my family and guests sitting around the Seder table wearing gas masks.  I explained about Passover starting Friday night, and the woman managed to locate an open service spot on Thursday, between 1 and 5.

Then I returned to the fridge.

In addition to being ridiculously heavy and not having wheels, my refrigerator has a drip pan that is not removable.  And was filled with caked on, stinky brown sludge.

I tried spraying some Fantastic into the tray and wiping up the sludge.  No luck.  I took the sprayer off the bottle, poured Fantastic into the drip fan, and left it to soak while Zulma, Claudia and I cleaned the rest of the kitchen.  I was secretly hoping that by coating the smelly sludge with a cleaner, the smell would be muted.  It wasn’t.

By 2 p.m., I’d opened all of the kitchen windows as wide as possible and apologized to Zulma and Claudia about a dozen times, as though I were the cause of the increasingly horrendous odor.

By 4, my kitchen was officially chametz free, and I should have begun covering the shelves and counters.  But the smell was making me dizzy, and I’d developed a headache.  I grabbed my errand list and headed out, leaving the refrigerator and its noxious odor to its own devices.

While I was out, the plumber came and replaced the cracked copper tubing with about 40 feet of shiny new copper tubing, which he was kind enough to leave tied in a coil behind the refrigerator.  I’m not sure exactly why he felt I needed quite so much tubing; perhaps he imagined that I would want to put the refrigerator out on the back deck, because of the smell, and would need 40 feet of tube to stretch all that way.  Or maybe he had intended to cut the tubing shorter before he installed it, but the terrible smell disoriented him, and he only realized that he hadn’t cut it until after it was installed.

In any case, I was grateful that the job had been done, and that the plumber hadn’t left me a note to the effect that something smelled terribly, horribly awful in my kitchen.

Because by the time I returned home from my errands, the smell had gotten stronger.  It had wafted into the front hall, so that as soon as I opened the front door, I was hit with it, like a dead, maggoty fish right across the face.

“Kids,” I called to my children, who were both locked away in their rooms, “we’re going out to dinner. Now!”

After I hollered five or six more times that we were leaving “now,” my son and daughter emerged from their rooms, blinking to clear their Facebook fogs, like two nocturnal animals who find themselves inexplicably awakened during the day.

My son sniffed the air.  “Yuck,” he said.  “It smells like poop in here.  Did Goldie have an accident?  Or maybe you need to change the cat box.”

“Goldie did not have an accident, and the cat box is clean,” I said more than a little huffily.  “And it’s not the trash either.  It’s the refrigerator.”

“Are you going to do anything about it?” he asked.  “Like get it fixed?”

I did not, Dear Reader, haul off and hit him.  But I wanted to.

At 8 o’clock that evening, I was on my hands and knees behind the refrigerator, trying to wipe up a lot of stinky brown goo while Peter reclined comfortably on a chair, providing me with general words of encouragement and a steady stream of paper towels.  I’d realized that the only way to effectively wipe out the goo was to unplug the refrigerator, sparing me worries about burning myself on the compressor or getting my fingers chopped off by the whirring blades of the fan.   And I’d switched from Fantastic to bleach.

The dual-action approach of turning off the fridge and dousing the drip pan with bleach seemed to help reduce the smell.  Slowly, as I worked my way into the farthest reaches of the drip pan, the miasma began to lift.  My headache cleared.

By the time I had my bolted-in drip tray sparkling clean, I began to believe that my kitchen wouldn’t stink forever and I would be able to host a Seder in less than 48 hours.

I plugged the fridge back in.  No smell.

I sighed a sigh of relief and satisfaction.  Job well done.

But an hour later, the first tendrils of rotten meat-pee odor had begun to make their way from the back of my refrigerator into the kitchen.  I shut the door to the dining room, left the kitchen windows wide open, and went to bed.

In the morning, the smell was clearly back.  I pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and inspected the drip pan: nothing.  Sparkly clean.  Then I noticed a plastic tube whose opening seemed to have a bit of brown slime on it.  Which stunk.

I soaked a paper towel in bleach and wiped out the opening of the tube.  Then I shrugged my shoulders and threw up my hands.  I had kitchen shelves to line, dishes to unpack, a Seder table to set, and a turkey to buy.  I would have to live with the stink until the GE repairman arrived, any time between 1 and 5.

His name was Oliver, and he arrived at 4:55.  Sniffing the air, he immediately and gleefully diagnosed the problem in a thick Jamaican accent.  Yes, the sludge in the drip pan had contributed, but the real source of the smell was the plastic tube, which, he explained, is not just a tube but a plumber’s trap.

There is a drain at the bottom of the inside of the refrigerator, he explained, out of which any accumulated moisture drains, into the plumber’s trap.

The trap in my refrigerator, just like the plumber’s trap under my sink, keeps what is at one end of the trap from mixing with what was at the other end of the trap.  In the case of a sink, the plumber’s trap keeps odors from the sewer from backing up into my kitchen.  In the case of the fridge, the plumber’s trap keeps the cold air and food smells inside the refrigerator and the room air outside of it.

Oliver speculated that a lot of something – milk, he thought – had gotten spilled inside the refrigerator, and drained into the plumber’s trap and drip pan.  Then the heat of the compressor and the refrigeration coils provided the perfect growing conditions for some really putrid smelling bacteria.

He pulled the plumber’s trap out and showed me that it was filled with frothy, clotted tan muck, which, when poured out into my kitchen sink, smelled like a cross between putrid cheese and poop.  Or maybe between horrible foot odor and vomit.  Definitely really bad.

Oliver rinsed the tube with water, then had me pour some bleach through it.  He assured me that the bleach alone would kill both the smell and the bacteria, and I needn’t worry about whatever muck that was still stuck to the inside, but I wasn’t taking any chances.  While he fiddled around at the back of the refrigerator, I got an old bottle washer and scrubbed the plumber’s trap clean.  Then Oliver poured a little water and bleach into it, and popped the thing back into place.

Each year, at the Seder, we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, had escaped from slavery in Egypt.  This year, it wasn’t even a stretch.

Freedom, glorious freedom!



(*One of the songs that is sung at the Passover Seder has as its chorus, the Hebrew word Dayenu, which means “it would have been enough for us.”  We recount, in song, fifteen acts that God performed for the Jews, and after each one, we sing “Dayenu.”  You can read more about the song here, or listen to a kind of schlocky version here.)




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