Jewish Journal


April 10, 2008

Food issues


Every Passover The Jewish Journal receives story pitches for a new batch of seders that the organizers tout as original or groundbreaking. Evidently the traditional ritual, at which Jews gather and retell the story of our people's liberation from slavery in Egypt, is so 2000 B.C.E.

"In every generation each person should feel as though she or he were redeemed from Egypt," says the haggadah liturgy -- and so we feel compelled to refashion the telling to suit our times.

This year in Los Angeles there will be a Latino Jewish seder, a black-Jewish seder, a feminist seder, a male consciousness-raising seder, a gay rights seder and, just when I thought I'd heard it all, an S&M seder. I'm not joking: A group that enjoys that kind of thing is touting a seder that runs backwards: it begins in freedom and ends in bondage, which for them, I guess, is an expression of freedom.

My response? You want bondage? You want slavery? How about cleaning your home of every breadcrumb prior to Passover, kashering your kitchen, then preparing the traditional seven-course meal for two-dozen guests. The holiday of our freedom requires hours and hours of hard, manual labor. Talk about S&M.

But, at the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney-stein, these newfangled, adaptive seders, noble as they are, aren't my thing. I prefer the regular old, leather-less, whip-less holiday.

In fact, I am so much of a traditionalist I steer clear of a lot of what passes for Passover food this time of year. Not long ago the Passover food aisle at the local supermarket consisted of matzah, gefilte fish, horseradish, macaroons, Concord grape wine and grape juice. During Passover, Jews are forbidden foods that contain leavening or grain products, aside from matzah flour. But evidently, eight days outside the grip of the modern American food processing industry is too much for some Jews to bear. And so, bit by bit, the Passover selection expanded. First came kosher-for-Passover brownie mix. Then, kosher-for-Passover Crispy-O's and Magic Loops cereal. And now, to choose from hundreds, there is blueberry pancake mix, instant vanilla pudding, Crunchy Hot snack fries, amaretto-flavored coffee whitener and a nondairy whipped topping whose ingredients include partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, polysorbate 60 and propylene glycol alginate. The refrigerator and freezer sections have more treasures, like crunchy chicken breast nuggets -- in "fun shapes!" -- fake fettucine alfredo, Salisbury steak (with mono diglycerides and real potato flakes) and something called Pizzarogies, made by a company called Dayenu, which translates as "Enough!"

To which I say, dayenu.

There is something perverted and even a bit destructive in the attempt to bring Passover food down to the standards of the modern industrial convenience food.

This is a holiday when we rejoice in our freedom. So why not take a week to be free from a consumer culture that lures us to buy and spend on stuff we really don't need -- we just cleaned our homes, didn't we -- just because it promises convenience and novelty?

Passover offers something rare in a society that has turned every other holiday into an excuse for lawn ornaments and mattress sales: It offers a message of simplicity. The Jews ran from Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their backs and some bread that didn't have a chance to rise. There is no simpler organism than the lowly single-celled yeast, yet even that hadn't time to split into two. You can manage a week's worth of great, simple meals, using fresh food.

If you need inspiration for cooking, look no further than the seder plate. The bounty of the spring season is all there: fresh herbs and greens, eggs, meats, matzah, and fruits and nuts. In the markets now there are baby artichokes, arugula, watercress, green garlic, leeks, fennel, blood oranges, and loquats. Find some recipes and actually taste the flavors of spring, of the renewal and rebirth that Passover comes to teach us.

I'm not looking to put anyone out of business here. But I do hope we can redirect the Passover Industrial Complex away from taking the ultimate green holiday -- a celebration of the Creator's ability to sustain us in our wanderings -- and turning it into a celebration of food science and flash freeze.

The genius of Passover is not just the story we tell but the table we set. One reaffirms the other, one tells the other. Every generation can relate to the story anew -- gay, Latino, feminist, S&M, whatever -- and every Jewish age and culture offers its own take on Passover cuisine. But in telling and "cooking" the story we have to mind what is essential, what has made this ritual relevant and enduring.

And we have to be careful that the Passover traditions we pass on to our children don't begin and end with Crispy-Os. The documentary, "The Gefilte Fish Chronicles," traces the making of that ur-Passover dish through three generations of the women in the Dubroff family. The grandmother kept live carp in the bathtub, to be killed and ground up for the final dish. The mother bought pre-ground fish at the local store and shaped the balls herself. The granddaughter opens a jar. I assume we can find a happy medium between braining your own fish and cooking with a can opener.

As for that other Passover dilemma, the effect of matzah on the intestinal tract: Eat a lot of those fresh greens this holiday season, and you'll soon come to believe in a merciful and wise Creator.

Seder plate image courtesy Chantal's Stained Glass

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