TORONTO — Toronto artist Vivian Reiss and her family are going to recreate a Canadian Jewish Passover seder, circa 1822, at the Campbell House Museum.
Vivian Reiss creates a 1800s-style Passover meal.
The March 29 event is the second private seder the Reiss-Gartens will be hosting for relatives and close friends in the historic building. Originally located in the town of York, the house was moved to downtown Toronto in 1972.
Reiss has showcased her paintings in over 50 shows in Canada and worldwide. Her art can be found in private and corporate collections in more than 15 countries, including the Canadian embassies in Washington, D.C., and Paris. Her talents go beyond the canvas, as she has designed architectural projects, costumes, clothing and furniture.
This Passover, Reiss, whose creativity also extends to cooking (she is currently writing a cookbook), will prepare a candlelight supper, featuring a traditional seder menu meant to emulate the experience of the first Jewish settlers in York. The meal will be cooked in the museum’s wood oven and open fire, using time-honoured tools such as a cast iron cauldron and frying pan.
Reiss says the museum’s rustic kitchen will let her share her fascination with the history of Passover in old Toronto with the 15 guests who will attend the seder. After having a birthday party a few years ago at Mackenzie House, a historic building and museum in Toronto, where she learned to cook on a hearth, Reiss joined the Culinary Historians of Ontario and became interested in ancient Jewish cooking rituals.
“This all coincided with the summer before when I visited a small town in Italy, where a community of Jews once lived,” says Reiss. “I came across this ancient matzah oven and wanted to recapture what a seder would have been like back then.”
Reiss says the seder will also be an opportunity for her to express her passion for the arts through the colourful dishes she will serve. The menu includes a bright canary pudding infused with lemon; rosemary lamb shanks in a vibrant wine sauce; purple and orange yams alongside red and yellow beets, and toasted homemade marshmallows.
Due to popular demand, Reiss will be making her famous chicken soup with matzah balls – her claim to fame as a Jewish mother, she says. “The soup will boil away in a beautiful brass cauldron, complementing the colours of the carrots, parsnip and chicken itself. Everything becomes golden.”
Culinary-wise, cooking at Campbell House will be quite complicated, says Reiss, who finds satisfaction in the challenge. “There’s no electricity in the kitchen. We have to bring in big washtubs of water to cook with. It’s hard to control the heat in the brick oven, and it takes two hours to reach the desired temperature. It gets to about 540 degrees, so the dynamic energy of the fire and the smoky taste it brings to the food make the experience fantastic. It’s seder cooking by candlelight.”
To make the meal even more authentic, Reiss plans to set the table with cutlery from the 1800s that she’s collected over the years from antique markets. To give the seder a personal touch, she will use horseradish from her garden for the bitter herbs course and fennel seeds she has grown for her sweet matzah recipe.
Reiss says Passover has always been her favourite holiday, as it revolves around family getting together and sharing special customs. While she has previously enjoyed cooking for her loved ones in her own home, she says the Campbell House seder further allows her to reflect on her roots.
Her parents were Hungarian immigrants, and she was raised in New York. She says at the seder her family will be reminded of their own exodus through experiencing what life might have been like for the first Jews who made their journey to Toronto.
“Passover is about exodus. It’s about the immigrant experience,” says Reiss. “Passover is the most meaningful holiday to my family, as every year our table is filled with Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren. The Passover meal, especially matzah, is symbolic of the Jewish immigrant experience.”
Much like the Jews who only had time to prepare matzah after fleeing Egypt, those who immigrated to Montreal, Quebec City, New York and the town of York faced a similar predicament on Passover, Reiss says. They arrived to a strange land and had to fend for themselves, without ready-made provisions such as the manufactured goods sold in stores today.
Reiss will be taking her journey back in time with her husband, Irving Garten, her daughter, Ariel, and her son, Joel, and other guests.