PITTSBURGH — Nancy Baker demurred when asked how she managed to sculpt matzah into an intricate scene depicting Moses and the parting of the Red Sea — without her medium turning to crumbs.
“I came up with a sneaky way of cutting the matzah that I will keep as a trade secret,” coyly responded the sculpture teacher from South River High School in Edgewater, Md., who can be credited with creating the impressive artistic display at the Shadyside Giant Eagle on Center Avenue here. “But I can tell you that it involves power tools and a hot glue gun.”
Baker was one of three artists commissioned to create matzah scenes in celebration of Passover at six Giant Eagle stores, working under the direction of nationally known chef James Parker, the reigning champion of fruit sculpture competitions on the Food Network and founder of the Food Artist Group.
After being tapped to design festive Passover displays, the three artists each submitted ideas for the matzah sculptures. Baker, though initially championing a nod to classic Italian Renaissance portraiture with the “Matzah Lisa,” gladly accepted the challenge of creating something with more of a holiday tie-in.
Baker, who is Mormon, knew a bit about the holiday, having had a Jewish best friend when she was a child, and attending seders at her friend’s home. But because Giant Eagle wanted the artists to incorporate not just matzah, but also the foods from the seder plate into the sculpture, Baker had to further educate herself on the symbolic Passover foods.
“Giant Eagle wanted to make it about Moses parting the Red Sea, and to also make the sea friendly,” Baker said, noting that Giant Eagle’s representatives were looking for displays that would be appealing to children.
Look closely at the enchanting sculptures, and turtles carved from apples and horseradish squid become apparent. Eggs, lettuce and cinnamon sticks also help fill out the seascape, standing in for various forms of marine life.
The Food Artist Group creates food sculptures for various events throughout the country, according to Parker, but this is the group’s first Passover display. Nonetheless, the celebrity chef is no stranger to Jewish catering.
“I worked for six-and-a-half years at hotels doing kosher banquets,” he said. He taught fruit and vegetable carving at the Kosher Center for Culinary Arts in Brooklyn and has done fruit carving workshops for Tu B’Shevat at various Chabad centers.
After being commissioned by Giant Eagle for this year’s Passover displays, Parker assembled his team.
Along with Baker, food artists Titus Arensberg and Greg Butauski collaborated on the Passover design.
The artists worked on sculptures at two Giant Eagle locations each, while providing in-store entertainment to customers.
“We were there during store hours between 10 and 3,” said Baker. “We go in with the project 80 percent done, and then put the finishing details on.”
Each sculpture requires 15 to 20 hours of work.
“People came over to ask us questions,” said Baker. “The fun part for me is when people come by and their brains explode; they’ve never seen a matzah sculpture before.”
The Food Artist Group has had “nothing but great feedback” on the sculptures, according to Parker.
“It’s so specific to the Jewish community,” said the chef. “People were really grateful it was done in recognition of the Passover holiday. There was someone who had come from Israel who said that this was better than anything they had seen in the homeland.”
While this was Baker’s first foray into matzah sculpting, she has vast experience in bringing to life representations of various scenes, animals and people through food. She got her start in food art by sculpting pumpkins and does a lot of cheese sculpting. She has also created a four-and-a-half foot gorilla out of licorice, and a likeness of the country singer Chris Stapleton out of bacon.
“As a teacher, I have to design 3-D projects all the time, so figuring out different mediums comes naturally to me,” she said.
Toby Tabachnick is senior staff writer of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.