Eleven years ago, I stayed with a Jewish family in Zimbabwe for Passover. There was no supermarket with kosher holiday foods nearby, so nearly every dish was made from scratch, from the chopped herring down to the stuffed grape leaves. My hosts had roots in both Lithuania and the Greek island of Rhodes, and each dish was rooted in the family’s distinct story; a few even featured the avocados growing in the backyard.
I spent the next Passover back in the United States. For the seders, I enjoyed some of my family classics, like potato kugel, brisket and matzo ball soup. I spent the rest of that holiday, however, eating a considerable amount of packaged “kosher for Passover” foods, such as matzo and jam, special cereal and other snacks. I longed for my meals in Zimbabwe — though I don’t doubt that my hosts would have appreciated access to the kosher aisle of an American supermarket to ease the burden of navigating the very elaborate and specific eating guidelines of Passover.
For a holiday all about freedom, Passover dietary restrictions — no bread or leavened goods and, traditionally, for Ashkenazi Jews, no legumes, rice or corn — can be quite taxing. Despite this complex set of rules and customs, a growing number of processed foods that meet these age-old Passover restrictions can now be found in supermarkets across this country. It’s increasingly possible to eat the same way on Passover as on any other day of the year, perhaps with a larger dose of tapioca and potato starch.
Yet embracing the holiday’s tedious dietary restrictions, not working around them, is critical to appreciating this holiday on a deeper level. And to eating well.
Generations ago, Passover preparations did not start at the supermarket. Jews in Baghdad spent months making wine and date syrup, pickling vegetables and baking matzos. Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe rendered goose and chicken fat and set it aside in early winter.
In the United States, mass-produced items began replacing homemade Jewish dishes in the middle of the 20th century (think gefilte fish from a jar, latkes and matzo balls from a box). Today the kosher offerings in supermarkets include a wide array of Passover products, from frozen gluten-free pizzas to cakes, sriracha mayonnaise and ice cream cones.
The number of unique Passover food items has more than doubled since 2011, to 52,000 from 23,000, according to Menachem Lubinsky, editor in chief of the trade newspaper Kosher Today. The holiday is the cornerstone of a multibillion-dollar industry. While corporate giants like Coca-Cola make Passover versions of their products, most are produced by specifically Jewish brands, according to Roger Horowitz, author of “Kosher USA.” About 40 percent of sales in the kosher food market are for Passover alone.
In so many ways, mass-produced kosher foods have made the holiday far less onerous. Families that once kept live fish in their bathtubs the week leading up to the holiday to make fresh gefilte fish no longer needed to turn bathrooms into aquariums. But what have we lost?
What defined Passover cooking around the world were the flavors of springtime, the ingenious substitutions for basic ingredients developed by clever cooks and the reliance on pure, simple ingredients. In northern climates, there isn’t a bounty of produce in early spring, so Jews relied on pickled foods they stored through winter, and foraged for wild spring greens, mushrooms and roots like wild horseradish. Sorrel soup, known as schav, is a traditional Eastern European Passover specialty.
Jewish cooks got creative. My grandmother made pancakes and “bread” rolls out of crushed matzo meal, which seemed like alchemy to me as a child. My great-aunt Yetta added a touch of potato starch to eggs, which she’d fry into a thin crepe, then either shred it into “noodles” or wrap it around farmers cheese for blintzes.
Dessert is a real miracle of Passover. Meringues, macaroons and chocolate are so prevalent on Passover because of the simplicity of their ingredients. The chef Yotam Ottolenghi writes that unleavened cakes are the “mother of great invention.” Ground nuts replaced flour; citrus sugar syrup or amaretto prevented it all from drying out.
In many ways, how we eat for the week of Passover is a reflection of ourselves, and it’s no surprise that the Passover table looks more like a typical American table. The fact that an entire aisle is dedicated to mass-produced Passover foods in many supermarkets signals the ways in which the Jewish community has been accepted into American life.
But that acceptance can be precarious. The challenge of making a meal with so many restrictions serves as a reminder of where Jews have come from and the importance of retelling the story of a time when they were not so fortunate.
This Passover, I suggest leaning into the limitations, rather than working your way around them. Embrace a restricted pantry and track down old recipes to make unique Jewish holiday dishes like matzo brei and dried fruit compote. Head to the farmers market to get a taste of the early spring greens and foraged foods.
As you grate potatoes for your kugel or chop walnuts for haroseth, remember that these foods tell the story of an identity in formation. And as you shape your matzo balls, reflect on the years of struggle for the privilege to be able to buy Passover pasta and matzo granola in a mainstream American supermarket.
Jeffrey Yoskowitz is a co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods and co-owner of the Gefilteria, a purveyor of Ashkenazi cuisine.