Part of what gives Passover its staying power is that its symbols are edible. We internalize the meaning of the holiday by eating it. Matzah is the bread of affliction. Maror is the bitterness of slavery. Charoset is the mortar our ancestors used on Pharaoh’s building projects.
But what does brisket mean?
Or kugel, for that matter? Or mina meat pies in the Sephardi tradition?
Why do we eat these traditional foods? And how did they come to be traditional, a term best defined by the phrase, “my grandmother used to make it.”
The menu of the Passover meal was determined by local and seasonal conditions, says Susan Barocas, a local caterer and teacher. If you live in Minsk, and there is still snow on the ground before Pesach, you’re going to have to look to your root cellar for vegetables. And what you probably still have down there at the end of winter is potatoes, which is why you’re going to serve potato kugel.
Kugel itself is an outgrowth of the bread kugel popular during the Middle Ages, says Leah Hadad, founder of Tribes-A-Dozen, a D.C.-based manufacturer of challah mixes.
“Potatoes came from the New World in the 1500s and 1600s. It was a cheap alternative for noodles. Now nobody can imagine Passover without kugel,” she says.
Brisket is an American invention, Hadad says. Not the cut of meat, but the tradition of serving it on Pesach started here.
A seasonal meat for spring would come from a young animal — veal in Eastern Europe or lamb in the Middle East, she explains. Brisket was served on Chanukah as winter set in and animals were slaughtered.
Some foods replace leaven with sheets of matzah. The matzah pizza is a recent
In Sephardi tradition, mina is a Passover substitute for borekas, whose flakey pastry dough puts it on the wrong side of the holiday, Barocas says. Matzah serves as the sturdy upper and lower crusts of the mina, which is then filled with meat.
Then there is the lowly k’naidel. Like other Passover standards, the matzah ball does not have Jewish roots, Hadad says. It began as a bread-crumb dumpling that was added as a meal stretcher to cholent, the slow-cooked Shabbat stew. Later it took a more familiar place in soup, with a Passover version made of matzah meal.
“Lots of these foods started in Germany,” Hadad says. They might have been adopted from other cultures, such as Italy. As Jews moved eastward into Poland and Lithuania, the foods moved with them and may have evolved into other things under new conditions.
“New traditions,” Hadad says, “are twists on old traditions.”
Ashkenazi tradition puts a whole class of foods — called kitniyot — out of bounds for the holiday. Rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas and lentils are forbidden. Sephardi custom allows kitniyot, a tradition both Hadad and Barocas were raised in.
“We eat rice during the holiday” — making a meal that includes the grain more filling, Barocas says. “But we didn’t eat it during the seder. We ate matzah.”
The reason is that Jews are commanded to eat matzah on the first two days of Pesach (one day in Israel and in the Reform community). It’s optional for the rest of the holiday — and the rest of the year.
As a result, Ashkenazi communities are filler deficient. Hadad says that just as potatoes went over big with Jews during the Age of Discovery, quinoa is destined to become a Passover staple today. The Andean grain was recently declared kosher for Passover by the Orthodox Union, the biggest voice in kashrut certification.
“It’s highly nutritious, high in protein,” she says. “For the holiday, it’s a great substitute.”
With the disappearance of local and seasonal limitations, and the general fading of Jewish poverty, the seder meal has become “expensive” and “quite indulgent,” Hadad notes. “There are plenty of people who can’t afford this multicourse meal.”
The sages discouraged the indulgence, because the tradition is to eat the afikomen at the end of the meal and enjoy it, she says. You can’t do both on a full stomach.