Lessons from the Garden for Passover

The matzoh eaten at the Passover seder is known as "the bread of affliction."

The matzoh eaten at the Passover seder is known as “the bread of affliction.”

Today’s piece is written by Rebecca Starr. Past assistant director of the Detroit Jewish Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, she currently serves as an independent educational consultant and an instructor for Melton, an adult Jewish education program. This article originally appeared in myJewishDetroit, the online community journal of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. 

Rebecca Starr, photo by John Hardwick

Rebecca Starr, photo by John Hardwick

I was raised on a sheep farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in a small town called Pickford.

This isn’t a phrase you hear very often, especially from a Jewish girl, but nevertheless, it is the life my parents chose for me for the first 18 years of my life.

We lived off of the land. Our farm produced everything we needed to fill our bodies with healthy, wholesome foods and we were deeply connected to the land on which we lived. Our garden produced more vegetables than our freezer could hold and we ate the lamb that we raised.

My connection to food and where it comes from is rooted in my rich past and I am regularly reminded of it as the Passover season approaches.

As we break bread . . . for matzoh

Matzoh (unleavened bread) is the bread of affliction, the lechem oni, or the bread of poverty. The Jewish custom of eating matzoh for seven or eight days (depending on your custom) during the holiday of Passover reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt. It reminds us that we did not have the resources to diversify or even complete our meals in bondage.

Passover recalls the Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Passover recalls the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt.

The act of eating matzoh takes us back to a place and time when food and freedom were scarce. It is truly amazing that such a simple food can bring such a strong and important message about the journey of the Jewish people. In truth, it also offers a very modern message to us as living in the 21st century.

Bondage takes many forms

Bondage and slavery can present themselves in many forms. The Israelites were literally slaves to the work of Pharaoh, but chains need not be present for us to feel as though we are victims of certain types of injustices today. When we consider the ways in which we access food on a daily basis, we realize quickly that sustainable, healthy, local, fair trade food is extremely difficult to find and even more difficult to find in less affluent areas.

In many ways, we are slaves to a food system that is not just and may even use unfair, illegal or unethical practices to create a product for our grocery store shelves with the single goal of turning a large profit.

The way in which we access food in today’s world looks a lot different than it did even 50 years ago. Local family farms exist, but in smaller numbers; animals are raised in unimaginable conditions that don’t resemble traditional farm habitats at all; agricultural workers are treated and paid unfairly; and food is processed so far from its natural form that it doesn’t resemble real food any longer.

We worry about pesticides and chemicals on a daily basis and we waste unbelievable amounts of food, fuels and resources on production. These are the things that keep me awake at night as I worry about which foods to offer my children and in what state we are leaving the planet for them.

There is no doubt that this message is concerning, and I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I am hopeful that we can work together to bring about real change. The Passover season is the perfect time to make a commitment to learn more about food justice and sustainability.

Today’s recipe is a vegetable kugel that can be used on Passover because it contains no grain that hasn’t already been baked into matzoh (in this case, in the form of matzoh meal). There are many types of kugel, which simply means pudding. It’s a side dish that is baked and cut into squares for serving.

 

It’s not Passover without matzoh balls!

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

It usually happens in early- to mid-March. I’m in my local supermarket, quietly doing my normal shopping, and there it is—a display of Passover foods. Immediately my heart starts to beat a little faster and I feel an impending sense of doom.

Why should the anticipation of Passover—one of the most joyous celebrations in the Hebrew calendar and a time for family togetherness second only to Thanksgiving—cause me such tzuris (a great Yiddish term meaning troubles or woes)?

I’ll tell you why: For those of us who keep kosher, Passover is a whole other dimension!

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

Eat matzoh for seven days!

It all starts with the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day.

From this simple command we developed a system of religious practices that include:

  • cleaning your house thoroughly, from top to bottom, to rid it of anything that might contain any trace of anything leavened.
  • making sure any packaged or processed foods are not only kosher but “certified kosher-for-Passover,” with no ingredients that are leavened or that could become leavened.
  • packing away all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances you use all year round and replacing them with “Passover” dishes and utensils that you use only during the eight-day festival (it’s still seven days in Israel, eight days everywhere else). Often these are stored in the basement or garage and the changeover involves much schlepping. And when you keep kosher, you need separate sets of everything for milk and meat. Unless you go vegetarian, this means two sets of Passover dishes, utensils and pots.

Those of us who host the festive seder meal on one or both of the first two nights of Passover usually have many guests, requiring a mammoth amount of cooking. But the cooking can’t start until all the “regular” dishes have been put away and the Passover dishes brought out.

Spring cleaning on steroids

And we can’t bring out the Passover dishes until we’ve thoroughly cleaned every room where we’ve had food during the year. In the kitchen, we have to scour every nook and cranny, including the refrigerator, freezer, oven, stovetop, microwave, cabinets and countertops. It’s spring cleaning on steroids! Once the kitchen is “kashered” (made kosher) for Passover, we can no longer eat “regular” food there, so we have to carefully plan our menus for the week leading up to the holiday. Although fruits and vegetables, kosher meat, fish, eggs and many dairy products do not require special Passover certification, it still takes effort to keep the “Passover” separate from the “regular.”

So there’s no cooking and freezing for the big meal weeks in advance like we can do for other holidays. Usually the kitchen isn’t Passover-ready until a day or two before the holiday starts, and then there’s a frenzy of cooking and baking in the few days leading up to the seder.

As I write this, my stomach starts to clench, along with my jaw.

Even in households where the husband is super-supportive, the wife is the chief executive officer of Passover prep, making the to-do lists and issuing orders to anyone else unfortunate enough to live there. Most of us women start the holiday exhausted.

Many years ago I worked for a hospice that served an interfaith population and was encouraging “cultural competency” among the staff. As Passover approached, I wrote a piece for the employee newsletter about what the care staff might expect to see in a Jewish home as Passover approached.

The staff rabbi thought it was funny because it showed such a female perspective. I wrote about cleaning and food, nothing about the wonderful spiritual aspects of the holiday. “Hmph,” I thought, “only the men have the luxury to think about the spiritual aspects of this holiday!” And furthermore, I thought, his wife was probably as overwhelmed as I was!

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

A time to celebrate at last!

But once the food has been cooked and the family and friends gather around the festive table, we are able to relax. Then Passover changes from a dire burden to my favorite holiday of the year. Then I can enjoy the seder, which is a retelling of the reason for the festival: We were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and now we are free.

The quintessential Passover food, besides matzoh itself, is matzoh balls, also known as knaydlach (just one is a knaydl)—which is Yiddish so you can spell it any way you want in English: knaidlach, kneydlach, kneidlach. They are so good we eat them year-round, something that can be said about very few kosher-for-Passover foods.

Here is my recipe for matzoh balls, but let me give you a caveat. You need to get a feel for the mixture before you let it rest. It can’t be too loose or your matzoh balls will fall apart. It can’t be too hard, or your matzoh balls will be rubbery instead of fluffy.

If the mixture seems a little too soupy after you’ve added the matzoh meal, sprinkle in a few teaspoons more, but realize that the mixture will thicken quite a bit as it rests. When you first make up the mixture, it should not be stiff enough to form balls.

I recommend starting with the stated amounts for the ingredients. When you’ve made matzoh balls a few times, you’ll be able to tell if the consistency feels right or needs adjustment.

One more note: rendered chicken fat makes the best matzoh balls, but I realize that few of us have chicken fat on hand these days. You can use solid vegetable shortening or margarine instead.

You can make the matzoh balls any size you like. I like them large, one per person, and this recipe will make about eight large balls. If you want to serve two per person, just make them smaller.

This recipe can easily be halved if there are just a few of you, or doubled to serve a crowd.

Enjoy the matzoh balls in a steaming bowl of chicken soup. (The photo with the recipe is by Hot Hungarian Chef via Flickr Creative Commons.)