Thursday, April 5, 2012
Jewish guilt is often a leading reason Jews observe holidays. But good food is a worthy reason itself, especially come Passover, the springtime agricultural festival that’s about storytelling, food and, oh yes, wine – the holiday text stipulates a four-glass minimum, imbibed while reclining on your left side. Don’t ask.
It’s a holiday rich in powerful symbols that brings back dramatic tales of the 10 plagues and the Red Sea crushing the Egyptian army – and tales told largely through the course of a meal.
The story is communicated largely through symbolic foods at seders on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, which starts Friday, April 6. Participants remove 10 drops of wine from their glasses to remember the plagues and eat parsley dipped in saltwater to symbolize tears shed by enslaved Jewish ancestors.
Straight horseradish root represents bitterness, and a shredded apple-raisin-walnut salad, charoset, is a stand-in for the mortar used to build Egyptian pyramids. It’s a barely sweetened, crunchy, refreshing condiment usually eaten on matzah, the central Passover food.
Matzah is an unleavened cracker-like bread, consumed as a reminder that when the Jews hastily left Egypt, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise and the dough hardened in the sun. This became the guiding feature of Passover cuisine: no bread or yeast products for eight days. All offending grains are removed from Jewish homes, and the last remaining crumbs burned.
While edible with cream cheese and jam or a generous layer of melted chocolate, matzah is mouth-suckingly dry and flavorless. You wouldn’t think it from the abundant options at Whole Foods: spelt, bran, whole wheat. I splurge for a box of spelt ($4.99), but tradition rules, and the old-fashioned stuff is what I’m after. So I embark on a search for kosher-for-Passover foods that will take me to four stores.
Trader Joe’s in Monterey offers no Passover selection at all, but I finally track down regular matzah at Nob Hill in Pacific Grove and Safeway in Del Rey Oaks ($0.99 a box). Safeway offers treats like macaroons, but not matzah meal; Whole Foods doesn’t have gefilte fish.
“It seems like here, the grocery stores are just not in tune with what people need for Passover,” says Susan Greenbaum, wife of Rabbi Bruce of Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel.
Congregants share shopping lists, so anyone going to San Jose or Palo Alto to stock up can buy for them. Greenbaum’s stopped trying to shop locally for Passover: “I’ve been here 18-and-a-half years. I’m not holding my breath.”
The need for store-hopping is alien to me. I grew up in New Jersey, where every major grocery has an extensive kosher aisle, and there are kosher butchers, pizzerias and Chinese restaurants.
Nob Hill wins my contest, with most of the essentials and even jellied fruit-slice candy, a traditional dessert. Most importantly, it’s the only one of four stores I visited that sells plain matzah meal, the key ingredient in my favorite Passover food, matzah ball soup.
My mom makes matzah balls once a year, as her grandmother did. “Every time I make them, I feel her spirit,” she says. I’ve inherited that tradition of making the same sweet, airy dumplings that absorb most of their flavor from chicken broth; texture is their most important attribute.
I’d always believed that my great-grandma’s recipe was proprietary and a sure-fire way to produce “floaters” – successful matzah balls that rise to the top of a pot of soup. “Great-grandma’s secret was beating the hell out of the eggs to make them ‘light and fluffy,’ in her words,” my mom explains.
So when I learned, in the course of writing this story, that my great-grandmother’s secret family recipe came almost directly off the Manischewitz box, it felt like finding out the tooth fairy isn’t real.
But if a food can bring back the feeling of pyramid building, it can even more readily revive family memories – even of cheating the system. Great-grandma’s secret ingredient in a Passover version of French toast, made with crumbled matzah: baking powder.
This is my great-grandmother Dora’s sacred recipe, which I only recently learned was straight off the matzah meal box. The only difference, I’ve found, is in how long and with how much verve you beat the eggs. Makes 20 matzah balls.
1 1/2 cups matzah meal
6 oz. cups margarine (substitute butter, if you don’t mind combining dairy and meat; or chicken fat for the real thing.)
A pinch of salt
1. Separate egg yolks and egg whites; add 6 tablespoons of water to yolks. Whisk.
2. Fold melted margarine, eggs and salt into matzah meal.
3. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
4. Form into balls, about 2 tablespoons of dough each.
5. Bring water to a rolling boil. Boil matzah balls for 20 minutes.
6. Float into chicken soup.