Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Do you really eat that for Passover?"

At synagogue recently, someone commented that gentiles must get some very strange ideas about Passover when they look at the Passover aisle in the grocery stores. In the average grocery store, you will see three-foot-long packages of matzah, jars gefilte fish and borscht, and shelf after shelf of cookies, cake mixes and candies... and very little else. Do Jews really eat that stuff and nothing else all eight days of Passover? I thought perhaps a little explanation might be in order.

Keep in mind that, for the most part, we can eat the same meats, fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk and cheese during Passover that we eat year round. We're not just eating borscht and gefilte fish with matzah; we're eating steak and potatoes, roasted chicken or turkey, beef stew, cheese omlettes, egg salad, tuna fish and so forth, but you don't see that sort of thing in the Passover aisle because for the most part, we buy that the same way we do every day. Those who are strict about Passover have more hoops to jump through, avoiding most prepared foods because those foods are likely to contain oils, syrups, or trace amounts of other ingredients that might be forbidden. People who are that strict generally do their Passover shopping at stores with a more extensive Passover selection, not your basic local grocery store. I go to specialty stores to seek out Passover-certified items that are ingredients in my Passover recipes. And some Passover-certified items are found right in the regular aisles of the store: you'll see Passover certification labels on cottage cheese and yogurt in the dairy section, or on olive oil on the oil aisle, for example.

But let's address a few of the oddities in the Passover aisle at your local grocer:

Five-Pound Boxes of Matzah

Do we really eat all that matzah? Well, some do and some don't. In many stores, the 5-pound boxes of matzah are like the 20-pound turkeys that your family gets at Thanksgiving: you don't finish it, but you buy it anyway because the stores sell it very cheap (or even give it away free) to draw in people who will spend a fortune on the other trimmings. Of course, a family of four with no other bread options for 8 days might well work their way through five pounds of matzah. But for most of us, Michelle Citrin and William Levin's video, 20 Things to Do With [leftover] Matzah, sums it up pretty well.

Gefilte Fish

Do people really eat that? Hmn... well, I don't care for it, but I'm not a fish eater. It's made of ground up fish (carp, whitefish, pike) with some vegetables, eggs and matzah meal, and formed into oval-shaped patties (to suggest the shape of a fish) and boiled in fish broth. Many consider it to be a delicacy, and it's traditionally the first course at a seder (after the matzah ball soup, of course). When I was in college, our dining hall served it every day during Passover, and the Jewish students ate it eagerly (the gentiles were terrified of it, except for one fellow from mainland China -- see Passover College Memories). But I don't think most people eat much of it after seder.


Borscht is a traditional Eastern European soup made with beets. I honestly have no idea why so much of it is available on the Passover aisle every year.

Cookies, Cakes, Macaroons and Candies

Do we really eat all that junk food? Hmn ... Well, you have to understand, regular cookies and cakes are obviously forbidden during Passover as leavened grain products. Most candies are less obviously forbidden because they contain corn syrup, which is also forbidden under Askenazic rules (the rules for Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe). And these are not the sorts of things that are easily made from scratch during Passover, like the main courses are. So what is a person to nibble on during Passover? I confess, I eat more junk food during Passover than year round, wolfing down fruit slice jellies whenever the urge to eat something non-Passover strikes me.

I hope that sheds some light on the oddities you find in the Passover aisle of your grocery store.

For more information about Passover dining, including several recipes or links to recipes, see Judaism 101's Pesach (Passover) Cooking Tips.


morningstar said...

Hi, Just a note to thank you for your posts, and for the great website. I've learned a lot from it, and I enjoy every update. Shalom, and carry on!

force10 said...

Are you planning to finish your YouTube video?
Also, I have finished reading your whole site, and nowhere do you mention Hebrew names for the days of the week (unless I missed it). (Have I tipped my hand that I am goy?) Do Jews simply refer to the days of the week by number?