It’s an old story: The Israelites left town in such a hurry that they couldn’t wait for their bread dough to rise. So they packed the flat bread (matzah) and took it with them.
But this is what we want to know: If Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from generations of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land of Israel, why do we celebrate by enslaving our menus and oppressing our taste buds?
One of the main traditions of the weeklong holiday, which begins this year on April 19 (the first seder is sundown on April 18), is to refrain from eating hametz, the Hebrew word for the food that’s forbidden on Passover. That is, anything really delicious. Specifically, hametz includes all regular bread or bakery products, plus any leavened or fermented food made with one of five prohibited grains: wheat, corn, barley, rye or oats.
In their place we get matzah, the unleavened flat cracker made with flour and water. Now you know why Jews get grumpy every spring.
The expression “keeping Passover” means eating no cookies, pasta, cakes, breads, pizza, bagels and such for an entire week. Obviously, bagels weren’t on the prohibited list back in the day, but over the centuries rabbinic authorities have updated the list of prohibited foods. Thanks, guys.
During Passover, most Ashkenazic Jews (from Eastern Europe) also avoid rice, corn, soybeans, peas, lentils and peanuts – foods known as kitniyot. Sephardic Jewish communities didn’t adopt this custom because these foods were staples of their Mediterranean diet. So if you need peanut butter on your matzah, claim a Sephardic ancestor in your family tree.
In traditional households, kitchen shelves and pantries are emptied and swept clean of crumbs in the days before Passover. But there are many interpretations and variations about how to rid your house of hametz. Among Jews, the divisions in observance are as deep as the Red Sea.
The most observant cover their kitchen counters in aluminum foil; carefully clean their ovens; and switch dishes, silverware, cups and plates to sets reserved exclusively for Passover. Many symbolically “sell” the forbidden foods to a non-Jewish person, usually through an agent like a rabbi, or donate the cookies, cold cereal and other forbidden items to a food pantry.
For more liberal Jews, it may be enough to thoroughly clean the kitchen of crumbs; pack up bread, cookies, cereal and other products made with flour; and put it all in a sealed closet or down the basement for the week.
With the bagels and coffee cake tucked away, what’s left is matzah – in all its variations. You can buy it with and without eggs, with and without salt, onion-flavored and whole wheat, but it still tastes like cardboard.
To help cooks get through the weeklong holiday, matzah has numerous incarnations: it’s pulverized to make matzah meal, which is supposed to substitute for flour but tastes more like sand. Matzah meal combined with eggs, oil, salt and pepper becomes a matzah ball that will float or sink in chicken soup. Farfel, or crumbled matzah, is used in kugels and stuffings. And then there’s matzah brei: crumbled matzah softened with water, mixed with eggs and fried. It’s the breakfast gold standard for the week of Passover.
The most famous Passover dessert has no trace of matzah in it. It’s the macaroon, a flourless, chewy, ball-shaped cookie made with ground nuts, shredded coconut and egg whites. The ubiquitous tin cans of macaroons, in flavors like Rocky Road, Triple Chocolate and Almond Chocolate Chip, spring up on supermarket shelves each year at Passover. Last year we read the nutrition label on a can and decided that that they weren’t worth the calories. (But there will be no calorie shortage: Joyce is serving strawberry cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake – Passover versions – for dessert at her seder.
Jewish manufacturers have tried to fool our taste buds with Passover versions of grocery store staples. Mostly, they’ve failed. When the kids were little, we were once tempted by granola bars made with farfel instead of oats and nuts and by cereals made with puffed matzah meal. Now we don’t waste our money. Matzah meal Cheerios are awful, even though the dancing lion on the box is super cute.
There is one Passover tradition you won’t find in any haggadah (the seder prayerbook). It’s common for families to celebrate the end of the holiday – and the return to eating leavened products – by eating pizza on the night that Passover ends. There’s nothing like biting into a slice of hot yeasty tomato cheesy-laden dough after a week of dry matzah to make you appreciate your freedom. Maybe that’s what they meant!