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Matzo Maven

Pondering the Passover paradox


Published April 16, 2008 at 9:32 a.m.

There's a well-worn joke that summarizes Jewish holidays in nine words: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." It's sort of true. On Chanukah we memorialize the Maccabees' triumphant revolt against the forces of Emperor Antiochus by eating potato latkes. On Purim we celebrate the lifting of a death decree against Jews in Persia with triangular poppy-seed pastries. Passover has a slightly different spin, commemorating the Israelite slaves' deliverance from Pharaoh's pursuing charioteers with an elaborate ceremonial meal - and an eight-day regime of special dietary restrictions.

As the story goes, the Israelites had to flee before their bread could rise, so they baked unleavened bread. During Passover, Jews re-enact the event by forgoing foods that contain leavening agents, as well as grains that could leaven accidentally. A major exception is wheat that has been used to bake matzo. Like my parents before me, I pass up not just bread and flour-based products, but also corn, rice, peas, beans and soy, as well as their derivatives, such as corn syrup and soya lecithin.

One easy way to sort the dos from the don'ts is to take a trip to a supermarket with a big Passover section. Back in the day, these seasonal displays were pretty basic: matzo, gefilte fish, canned macaroons. These core foods may now share shelf space with such exotic grain-based items as brownie mix, granola, pasta shells, even chow mein noodles - all kosher for Passover. The message of this marketing miracle is that you can observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread and still eat pretty much the same goodies you enjoy all year.

Sounds good, right? After all, isn't it illogical to celebrate the "Festival of Freedom" by shackling oneself with a zillion prandial prohibitions? As we say in Yiddish, au contraire. To my mind, the point of Passover isn't deprivation but difference - not just between this week and every other week but, more importantly, between oppression and liberation. What makes the holiday all the more powerful is that we observe it so personally, in the minutiae of our daily lives.

Because the matzo-only rule applies not just to what Jews eat, but also to what we own, preparing for Passover means clearing all disallowed foods - or hametz - from the home. Traditionalists do a thorough spring cleaning, storing regular dishes and cookware in sealed cabinets and bringing out a special set that's used just one week each year. Forbidden foods are tossed, symbolically sold to non-Jews, or ceremoniously burned before the holiday begins.

When I was a kid, my mother removed hametz from the menu but not from the house. I take it a step further, packing up my non-Pesadich provisions. I also put away the toaster. Then I wipe down the empty cupboards and refill them with the foods we'll consume during the next eight days.

I complain about the chore, but when I'm actually doing it, I like it. On a purely practical level, I'm glad to get rid of that last inch of stale breakfast cereal at the bottom of the box and that weird rice I know I'll never use. This is also the only time all year that I get around to cleaning those shelves. Less tangible - and more powerful - is the sense of expansiveness and, yes, freedom that comes from watching at least one corner of my crowded life emptying out, becoming clean and under control.

The festival begins at sundown, when family and friends gather for the Seder meal, which melds liturgy, learning, lots of food and four glasses of wine. Every Seder follows the same basic format, but each family adds its own flavor, picking which parts to stress in the program laid out in the Passover Haggadah. There are thousands of versions of this book. We own several. One published by Yeshiva University offers copious commentary. One from the Reconstructionist movement stresses social justice and never mentions God. A hippie Haggadah focuses on multiculturalism and spring renewal. After my parents died, we inherited the 12-copy set with lurid red and purple illustrations I remember staring at as a child. Many of the pages are splotched with wine stains, and in the "master" copy, parts are assigned to different family members - many of them long gone - in my father's familiar scrawl.

If the centerpiece of Passover is the Seder, the centerpiece of the Seder is the Seder plate: a display of symbolic foods. Parsley signifies spring. A roasted lamb shank recalls the sacrifices performed in the ancient Temple. A roasted egg is redolent of Easter - and mysteriously never mentioned in the course of the Seder. A "bitter herb" evokes the oppression of slavery. And a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called charoset, resembles the mortar and bricks with which the Israelite slaves toiled.

I was raised on my grandparents' charoset, an unassuming concoction of apple, walnuts, cinnamon and sweet wine. But in recent years, I've started riffing on recipes from the Sephardic Jews of the Middle East to create a shiny blend of dates, figs and almonds sweetened with honey, studded with sesame seeds and sparked with cardamom, ginger and cayenne. The result is earthy, tangy and addictive.

We have our own take on the bitter herb, too. My parents' Seder plate boasted a hairy brown horseradish root. But for eating, they served an electric-pink relish of horseradish mixed with vinegar and beets. Today, when it's time to taste the bitter herb, my husband passes around slivers of the raw root. The jolt clears your sinuses and, if it's really kick-ass, can bring a flash of satori. Every year we ask, "If we get off on this effect so much, are we really fulfilling the commandment to taste the bitterness the Israelites experienced in Egypt?"

Questioning is essential to the Seder, which is designed primarily for pedagogy. In addition to the Haggadah's scripted queries, we come up with our own. "How could God justify inflicting the 10 plagues on innocent Egyptian civilians?" "What's that egg doing on the Seder plate?" And, every year, "When do we eat?" The discussion grows livelier and sillier as we work our way through those four prescribed servings of wine - which can be the subject of vigorous debate as well.

For decades, to American Jews, "Passover wine" meant square-bottled, screw-top Manischewitz Concord Grape, a deep purple libation as viscous and cloying as cough syrup. Then kosher vintners started turning out wines that actually taste like, well, wine. Some are even from France. A fierce dispute ensued. Is it better to stick with tradition and slug down the kid stuff, or to serve something to satisfy a sommelier? We offer our Seder guests a choice. But we still refill our own glasses with Manischewitz. We can sip vintage varietals any other time of the year.

At our house, the pre-meal program lasts about an hour. Then we clear away the Seder plate and the Haggadahs, and tuck in. My recipe for chicken soup with matzo balls comes from my mother's mother, who used to prepare the soup ahead of time and bring it to my parents' house frozen in plastic containers she'd saved from deli purchases. To form light, well-shaped matzo balls, Big Grandma kept her palms slippery wet and her fingertips dry. When I use her trick, I picture her not in her kitchen, where I rarely saw her, but at my parents' Seder table, holding forth authoritatively on Israeli politics and smelling of Je Reviens perfume.

My Seders today also include chremsels, a treat my mother picked up from her mother-in-law. During Passover at my parents' house, Little Grandma sat opposite Big Grandma. My father's mother was considerably older and less stylish than her counterpart. She was also a lot quieter; she knew there was no point in trying to get a word in edgewise. The chremsel recipe she gave my mother is unlike any other I've found. I've seen the term chremsels - or chremslach, as the Yiddish is properly pluralized - used to describe fruit-and-nut fritters, fried mashed-potato pockets stuffed with ground meat and potato pancakes à la latkes.

Little Grandma's are fried matzo-and-egg fritters soaked in steaming honey. They turn out sweet and starchy, moist and dense on the inside and crispy on the jagged outside. My husband hates them. Our kids inhale them. A friend of our son's once tasted one and declared with satisfaction, "Chicken!" Well, maybe chicken fingers. To me they taste like home. And, of course, like Passover, which is the only time I ever have them.

For breakfast the morning after the Seder, I prepare matzo brei - matzo and egg lightly browned in butter, frittata-style, and sprinkled with sugar at the table. My husband loves it with a squeeze of lime to balance the sweetness. My kids are indifferent no matter how it's served. I look forward to it all year, and try to have it at least a few times during the week.

This post-Seder period puts some people in a panic. The prospect of eight days without peanut butter or bread drives them to matzo-meal-based brownie mixes and ersatz noodles and other kosher-for-Passover products that simulate hametz. I run the other way, avoiding these products like the 10 plagues. I want to keep Passover feeling like Passover. So I stick with potatoes - fried, roasted, mashed, baked.

And for the morning meal, lots of matzo. Crisp to the tooth and neutral on the tongue, it provides a perfect platform for cream cheese and honey. Substitute marmalade for the honey, and the taste is flavorful and full. Switch out the cream cheese for chèvre or ripe avocado, and the effect is sexy and sophisticated. Or forgo all that and eat matzo with just butter and salt, like popcorn. As we devour piece after piece, it's hard for us to believe this is the same stuff the Haggadah refers to as the "bread of affliction."

Other people might welcome the end of the holiday. But as I carry my boxes and bags of hametz back into the kitchen and watch my cupboards clutter up again, I usually feel some regret. During the year to come, my meals will be more varied, but they won't be eaten with such mindfulness. What I'm experiencing is disappointment in the face of abundance, an emotion I understand as a product of privilege. A luxury. It's a response that would never occur to me if I were, for example, a slave. This is the message that lingers when the sun sets and I raise that first bite of yeasty bread to my mouth.