Happy Passover, Danny DeVito

In Barry Levinson’s 1987 movie Tin Men there’s two scenes that always struck me as getting to the emotional core of Passover. The first takes place at a bar.  Danny DeVito plays Tilley, a guy whose wife just left him for a man he loathes, and whose house and car have just been repossessed.  He’s talking to Sam (played by Jackie Gayle) one of the tough old Jewish cons he works with.

SAM: I’m beginning to believe in God.

TILLEY: You were never one of those athiests, were you?

SAM: No, I’m not saying that, but I’m beginning to give God more thought.

TILLEY: So, what’d you do.  Have some kind of religious experience?

SAM: I tell ya…I took my wife for lunch yesterday…We went and had some smorgasbord, and it kind of happened.

TILLEY: You found God at the smorgesbord?

SAM: Yeah. I go there… I see celerey; I see the lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower,…and I think, All these things come out of the ground. They had corn—out of the ground. You say to yourself, How can all these things come out of the ground? You know what I’m talking about? All these things come out of the ground.

TILLEY (not understanding): Yeah.

SAM: I mean, how can that be? Out of the dirt all those things came. And I’m not even getting into the fruits… I’m just dealing with the vegetables right now. With all those things coming out of the earth, there must be a God.

TILLEY: I’m not getting the same religious effect that came over you. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel like running to a church to pray right this second.

SAM: You gotta admit, it’s amazing.

TILLEY: Yeah, yeah….

Cut to many scenes later, when Tilley’s life is even more in the toilet, and he finds himself at Thor’s Smorgasbord.  He walks to the salad bar, pauses to look at the bountiful array of vegetables, and time seems to stand still. A beautiful light, a spiritual peace descends upon him.  And he prays:

TILLEY: God, if you’re responsible for all this stuff down here, maybe you got a moment’s attention for me….

Of course it doesn’t work out—a woman tries to cut in front of Tilley and he gets annoyed and snaps back.  The moment of transcendence for him was another chance to plead his case. But for a second, you almost believed the power of the salad bar bounty to work its magic on Tilley.

Around Passover, that feeling Sam had overcomes me as well.  The seder table, when its foods reflect the bounty of spring, the green bursting forth of life, should anchor us in gratitude and awe. That’s also why when I cook for Passover, I try to use as many young new green things—chard, dandelion, artichokes, mint, dill, new potatoes, green garlic, leek shoots, pea tendrils—as possible. 

A few years ago, just before Passover, I was making one of those mad dashes into yet another market to pick up yet something else I had forgotten on my list. Leeks.  How could I forget the leeks?

I ran into the Whole Foods on Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills, a market that’s rarely on my shopping loop, but that I just happened to be passing that day.  Leeks Leeks leeks.  With the kind of focus that only having 26 people for a seven course dinner in five hours can bring to a shopper, I beelined for the produce aisle: sweaty, frantic, feeling about as spiritual as a piston.

As I paused to scan for leeks, a man’s voice nearby called out to me.

“Hey, can you reach the chard?”

I didn’t see a soul around, but the voice was familiar as it was unplace-able. Then I looked down to my right. It was Danny De Vito.

“It’s up there,” he said.

De Vito pointed up, arm outstretched like Moses showing the way into the holy Land. I looked up an saw what he saw: a wall of glistening variegated chard: deep green, beet red chard,  lemon yellow, all bursting out from the top produce shelf, where clearly he couldn’t reach. Suddenly I was in the scene from Tin Men with him.

“Sure,” I said.  I reached up, pulled down a bunch, and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” the actor said.  He lifted the sheaf of greens in his hand. “Beautiful stuff.”

That was a good way to begin Passover.

[RECIPE] Passover Vegetable Tian

1 pound new potatoes

1 pound green garlic

1 pound leeks

1 pound fennel

1 pound fresh baby artichokes

1/2 cup olive oil

3 T. fresh dill

2 fresh mint

2 fresh bay leaves

1 bunch watercress

1/4 cup white wine

salt and pepper

Clean all vegetables and cut off inedible parts. Slice potatoes in 1/4 inch rounds. Slice garlic, leeks, fennel in 1/4 inch slices. Quarter artichokes. Chop herbs. Heat olive oil in large oven proof casserole over a high flame. When hot, add the fennel, leeks, garlic, potatoes, artichokes, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Stir, reduce flame to medium low and cover. Let cook 30 minutes, until vegetables are soft.  (You can also cook in a 400 degree oven.)  Uncover, raise heat, add wine, stir until evaporated.  Stir in dill, mint and watercress. Cook another 5 minutes, uncovered.  Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.