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Matzoh is food for the brain, not the belly. (iStock)
Matzoh is food for the brain, not the belly. (iStock)

The primal Jewish food, matzoh is about affliction, not taste Add to ...

The first task imposed upon the Israelites, the first action they are ordered to perform, is to make dinner. God gives them an annotated menu, specifying ingredients, side dishes, methods of cooking, treatment of leftovers, dining time, and dress code – no sandals, no stick, no divine service – and tells them to get cracking and do it.

Until that first Passover, the Israelites ate only what was tossed to them. The change of diet turned them into Jews. Killing lambs or kids and eating them with matzoh and bitter herbs instead of waiting for a ration of onions and leeks is a declaration of the end of dependence.

Since bitter herbs are really just a side dish that anyone can pull out of the ground, and no one has seen a Passover sacrifice for two thousand years, matzoh – for which the Bible provides an antirecipe – became the basis for Jewish thinking about food. Making and eating it is the first organized activity that the Israelites undertake without Egyptian permission; they eat it for their own benefit, not the Egyptians’, and on their own time, not that of their former masters.

Once the Israelites abandon the Egyptian calendar and stop thinking like second-class versions of their oppressors, they become free to act in ways that have nothing to do with Egypt.

The matzoh that they baked probably didn’t bear much resemblance to the brittle, cracker-like substance that Ashkenazim have been eating for the last few centuries, but flour and water are flour and water, and once we make allowances for the difference between baking on a griddle or pan and doing so in an oven, the basic process cannot have been much different.

The first batch, the first few centuries of batches, were probably a lot more relaxed about the ancillary regulations that began to proliferate in the Talmudic era, but the baking itself and the near-obsessive worry about leavening cannot have changed too much. While most of the matzoh produced today is made by machines that hack out thousands of pounds an hour, bakeries in which every thing is done by hand have never gone away and, thanks to a growing ultra-Orthodox population, have been undergoing something of a resurgence.

Aside from such modern touches as thermostats and electricity, today’s hand-matzoh bakeries aren’t much different from those that sprang up in the 18th century to spare householders the trouble of making their own. If anything, the modern bakeries are probably more stringent with respect to the law and more specialized in division of labour.

A measurer who has been sequestered with the flour pours about 2.7 pounds (the volume, our sages tell us, of 43.2 eggs) into clean, dry, metal bowls. A water bearer then emerges from the water room – a further precaution to keep flour from meeting water before the time is right – and moistens the flour with spring or well water that has been left to stand overnight.

The mixture is kneaded into a long strip of dough, which is then cut into smaller strips that are rolled into thin discs. These are perforated with a toothed wheel called a reydl to keep the dough from bubbling when it’s baked – a bubble bigger than a hazelnut disqualifies the matzoh for Passover use. The discs are given a quick once-over and then slid into the oven for 20 to 30 seconds.

It’s all done with breathless haste. The dough has to get from bowl to cooling rack in no more than 18 minutes, after which any unbaked dough becomes chometz – leaven – and has to be discarded. The flour used in this example is enough for about half a dozen bowls of dough, all of which would be kneaded and baked in a single 18-minute shift. At the end of every batch, the facility, the equipment, and the workers are cleaned off and the process of making the simplest, least complicated of all baked goods begins anew.

There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about. Matzoh is the bread of affliction, not the artisanal cracker of unleavened heritage grain and pure spring water. It’s the food of slave-slaves on the run, not wage slaves in repose, and what is important about it is what it is not.

Matzoh has a duty, if not quite to taste bad, then to not taste like much, “For you left the land of Egypt in a hurry,” with nothing but the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of roadside fast food to sustain you, food of dire necessity that you’d avoid if you could. While it’s difficult to argue over questions of taste, the fact that a small number of Jews who also observe Passover claim to like the taste of matzoh could be seen as a kind of culinary Stockholm syndrome. As a Yiddish proverb has it, “A worm in horse radish thinks that there’s nothing so sweet.” Matzoh doesn’t need to stoop to taste, it knows that it has you hostage.

For most observant Jews, matzoh any time but Passover is usually the bread of last resort, a Torah-true hardtack suitable for shlepping into areas where acceptable bread is hard to come by. It tends to be considered a delicacy primarily by non-Jews and Jews whose ties to the ritual and ceremonial aspects of Judaism are not particularly powerful – there are plenty of “Jewish” or kosher-style restaurants that serve their usual non-kosher fare on Passover, but with a box of matzoh on every table.

People schooled in Jewish law and tradition appreciate matzoh for what it is, an aftertaste of oppression at a feast of deliverance, a reminder of how big a favour the Lord has done us. Whether toasted to perfection or blackened like a kosher campfire marshmallow, matzoh is the original win-win product: If it tastes good, it tastes good; if it doesn’t, then it’s all the more authentic.

It’s food for the brain, not the belly, as any Passover seder makes clear.

From Rhapsody in Schmaltz by Michael Wex, on sale April 12, 2016, from St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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