April 9, 2009

WHYFOR ON THIS NIGHT ABOVE ALL OTHERS DO WE EAT SALTINES?:

Matza and macaroons: As the Jewish festival of Passover nears, Naomi Alderman celebrates its annual food rituals and offers two classic recipes from her grandmother's favourite cookery book (Naomi Alderman, April 16, 2008, Guardian)

The festival celebrates, and at times attempts to relive, the story of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from their captivity in Egypt. God, so the Bible relates, rescued the Children of Israel from slavery by smiting Egypt with 10 plagues; when Pharaoh finally agreed to release them, they had to leave so quickly that they didn't even have time to allow their bread to rise. So, for the eight days of Passover - this year from sunset next Saturday to sunset on Sunday April 27 - observant Jews eat no bread products, or anything made with flour that could potentially have had time to rise. These foods are called "chametz" and it's the prohibition against owning even a crumb of the stuff during Passover that creates the greatest levels of anxiety. In the preceding weeks, Jewish homes are cleaned with a fervour that borders on obsessive-compulsive. Furniture is pulled out. Books are opened and shaken. Curtains - as if they were known to attract breadcrumbs magnetically - are taken down and washed. [...]

The foods - especially the ritualised Seder meals on the first and second nights of the festival - become all the more alluring for being seen, smelled and tasted only once a year. Matza brei, the soft-yet-crunchy, delicious breakfast made from matza (cracker-like flatbread made from flour and water) soaked in an egg-and-milk mixture, and then fried in walnut oil, transports me instantly back to the kitchen of my grandmother, who died two years ago. I miss her, but I feel close to her again when I cook the meals she used to make - sometimes with her utensils as, being used only one week in the year, Passover cookware survives the generations. I have her recipe book, a battered 1958 edition of Florence Greenberg's Jewish Cookery (an updated and expanded version of Greenberg's first Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book published in 1934), bulging with yellowed recipes cut from newspapers and handwritten notes stuffed between the pages.

Passover, like all ritual, has the ability to telescope time. When I visit my parents' house and eat the same chicken soup my mother always makes, with the same kneidlach - little dumplings made from matza meal and eggs - floating in it, it's not exactly that I'm transported back to childhood. But the continuity between each Passover and all those that have gone before is almost stronger than the continuity between the day before the festival starts and the festival itself. There is a satisfaction, and a sense of permanence and stability, to be found in eating the same foods that I did at that time last year. This feeling swells further with the thought that the same rituals were performed not only by my parents and grandparents but ancestors whose names had been forgotten 100 years ago.

[originally posted; 4/16/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 9, 2009 6:28 AM
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