Passover – food! These words go together. It’s impossible to think about Passover without thinking about what you do and don’t eat.
On Passover, you don’t eat chametz (cHAH-metz), which refers to any food that has leavening, including breads, cakes, cookies, beer, and many other less obvious foods. In its place is matzo (MAH-tsah), a flat cracker that is often compared in taste to dust and other dry delicacies. The matzo is both food and symbol: as the story goes, the Hebrews left Egypt in such haste, their bread did not have time to rise. For the eight days of Passover, we eat matzo to commemorate the exodus.
But while matzo is the centerpiece of Passover food, it is hardly the only specialty food. Matzo balls, made from matzo meal and served in chicken soup, make their appearance at the Seder meal and roll around many a plate during the holiday week. They are not without controversy, however, as cooks and diners debate the crucial question: heavy or light, which is better? I always liked the cannonball variety, but many argue passionately for the light and airy.
A standard Passover food is gefilte fish, a fish patty made from different types of ground up fish.
Though it’s not my all-time favorite food, its taste and texture have a strong place in my gustatory memory. Say “gefilte fish” and I think Passover! (In fact, you can eat it any time.)
You might think dessert would be a dreary time on Passover, but creative cooks meet the leavening-free challenge easily. You can cook or buy many Kosher-for-Pesach (acceptable for Passover) treats–cakes, candies, chocolate-covered matzos, and macaroons (dense little coconut cookies shaped like a mini-dome). (All packaged foods eaten on Passover should show the rabbinical seal approving the food for Passover.)
Our family standard was sponge cake. It gained its height from egg whites, beaten into stiff peaks with an old-fashioned hand beater. Blending the egg whites into the matzo-meal-and-egg batter was a tricky task tinged with drama—would the egg whites stay firm enough? I have vivid memories of watching my mother wield a rubber spatula as she gently folded in the egg whites and then eased the mixture into an angel food cake pan (a Passover-only pan by default, as my mother never baked cakes otherwise). I don’t remember any seriously collapsed cakes, and I certainly don’t remember any one ever complaining that the cake was too flat.
Finally, I arrive at Passover’s breakfast delight: matzo brie. Matzo brie is made by soaking a board of matzo in water (which creates a soggy and rather yucky mess) and then breaking the wet matzo into pieces that are cooked into egg, which ends up like a frittata or chunky scrambled eggs, depending on how you cook it. I always thought matzo brie was as fundamental to Passover as matzo balls, but after I waxed ecstatic about it, my husband said he did not even know what it was.
Curious about Passover food? Don’t be afraid–you can find a wide variety of Passover foods at most grocery stores. And if you are feeling brave, try eating a board of plain matzo. It’s dry and crunchy and carries the taste of Passover!
Questions for Reflection: What traditions—religious or otherwise—do you practice that have strong food associations? How do different foods become part of the experience? How does food become part of memory?
Writing Prompts: “Our family had a tradition of eating ______” (then keep writing); “When I remember foods from my family, I find myself ______” (then keep writing); “As I read about Passover, I start to think of ______” (then keep writing).