"I remember my mother talking about her grandmother and growing up poor — I mean poor — in New York," recalled Blanton, one of four women preparing briskets for Temple Beth-El's Seder this year. "They were poor, but they always observed the traditions of Passover and the foods of Passover.
"They brought that with them, and it never left."
The matzo cakes and brisket are still a part of Passover at Gene and Sherry Blanton's house in Jacksonville. They are the foods of her faith, and marry sustenance of the body with the traditions of the spirit.
The world's three major monotheistic religions include food in the holiest of times. Whether it's the Passover Seder of Judaism, with its roots stretching back to Mosaic times, the fasting-feasting of Islam's Ramadan or Christianity's Lord's Supper, food and its symbolism cannot be separated from faithful observance.
It might be as simple as a fellowship potluck supper on Wednesday night, or a barbecue on a summer afternoon so hot that the smoker seems to draw fire from the air around it. The conversation is rich, the food plentiful, the congregation fed.
"I honestly believe that because food sustains us, it is an element that connects us," said Rev. Roland Brown of Golden Springs Baptist Church. "When you share food, you share a part of yourself.
"It is the doorway to the second great commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Up until the early 19th century, some American Protestant denominations regularly held love feasts as part of their liturgy. The Moravian church and the Methodists would hold feasts prior to services at Christmas, Thanksgiving and Good Friday.
Some congregations would have communal foot washings before the meal to symbolize Jesus' actions at the Last Supper. Others would simply arrange a meal and welcome the community as their way of extending faith to anyone who would partake.
That spirit lives on today, when someone in the congregation is sick, having a baby, moving into a new house or has just lost a loved one. The phone calls are made from one member to another; the food arrives. The tradition lives on.
"Food is a message that says, 'I love you,'" Brown said. "What's one of the first things you'll hear if you go visit someone? 'Are you hungry?' Well, that can be spiritual, too, and that's meant to be shared."
The congregational Seder is one of the highlights of Passover, which this year begins on Tuesday and stretches for seven days. While each family has its specific traditions, the shared meal provides the chance to trade stories of family and, in many cases, memories about the people who handed recipes down from one generation to another.
Blanton's grandmother came from Russia and spoke only Yiddish her entire life. Passover was when the special dishes — used only for Passover — came out. Silver dishes, special pots, all sacred to the family, appeared for this one meal.
"Everyone was poor, but they had brought these things with them. It was Passover, and you had to have everything perfect," said Blanton, who remembers her mother's stories about eating matzo cakes fried in chicken fat. "It's not Passover at Sherry Potozky Blanton's house unless Gene and I have fried matzo."
The ritual of Passover preparations goes back to the first meals of unleavened bread. Blanton and others preparing the Seder for Passover make careful note of the contents of their menu, from the ingredients of the matzo down to the wine that will accompany the meal.
Even people who are not observant Jews throughout the rest of the year will drive three hours to buy ingredients marked "Kosher for Passover," Blanton said. The smells, the tastes, must be experienced and shared.
"It's the tradition you reach for, it's who you are," Blanton said. "No matter who you are, it's part of your soul."
Laura Tutor is a freelance writer for the Star. She can be reached at email@example.com.