Passover observance offers food symbolism, grain restrictions

This week, 14850 Dining is talking about Passover and its food traditions. Straight out of the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the Passover story is about the Jewish people’s departure from slavery in Egypt, and the holiday is full of traditions that recall aspects of that story. Of course, the most famous Passover meal is the Last Supper — the meal represented in Da Vinci’s painting which Jesus shared with his twelve disciples.

Most of the changes to people’s diet during Passover stem from commemorating the fleeing Jews’ rush to bake their bread before it had a chance to rise. That’s the origin of matzah, for all intents and purposes oversized crackers that some folks get sick of long before the eight days of Passover are over.

Kosher for Passover Coca-Cola. 14850 Photo.

Kosher for Passover Coca-Cola. 14850 Photo.

The tradition of not eating leavened bread, or bread that has had a chance to rise, has been extended to a general prohibition on eating grains during Passover, including not just wheat, rye and barley, but also corn — which means the countless prepared foods that include corn syrup or corn starch are off limits for the week. The good news is that the corn syrup restriction leads to Kosher for Passover Coke, made with sugar cane syrup for a couple of weeks a year. Look for the telltale yellow cap with Hebrew writing on it.

Some observant Jews eliminate not just bread and pasta and other grain items from their diets for a week, but also all legumes — which includes peanuts and soy, so such vegetarian staples as peanut butter and tofu are off-limits. These restrictions are mostly observed by Jews of Ashkenazic, primarily Eastern European, descent, but generally not by those of Sephardic descent, often from northern Africa or Spain. Some Jewish communities are phasing out the restrictions on legumes, and even rice and corn, based on discussions in 2015.

Most alcoholic drinks are grain-based, including beer and whisky, though determined observers might seek out potato-based vodka (most commercial vodkas these days are grain alcohol), sugar cane spirits like rum and cachaça, and agave-based tequila.

not-for-passoverLocal supermarkets offer a mixed bag of Passover supplies for residents stocking up for meals at home. Tops and Wegmans both have large areas set up with not just matzah, but also sodas and candies without corn syrup, cereals and crackers made from matzah meal, Passover noodles and baking mixes, and more. P&C Fresh, the east hill store that Federal regulators forced Tops to divest, has stepped up their game a bit. In the past, they’ve set up a small “Passover” display of items most of which were clearly marked as “not for Passover use.”

Chopped liver platter at Hal's Deli.

Chopped liver platter at Hal’s Deli.

Local eateries can help those observing Passover by making sure there are some dishes available without grains — so, salads without croutons, soups without flour or corn starch, and entrees without pasta or rice. Hal’s Deli in downtown Ithaca offers a Passover menu each spring, including matzah ball soup, borscht, salads, and omelets. Some bakeries will have things like flourless chocolate tortes or coconut macaroons on hand, and just about any restaurant can make a salad without croutons or the like. Having matzah on hand — the flat, unleavened, cracker-like bread — will make eateries especially popular for Passover!

Other symbolic foods that appear in the traditional Passover Seder include a lamb shank bone that represent the Paschal sacrifice and the lamb’s blood placed on doorposts to ward off the Angel of Death; and the sweet mixture of apples and walnuts with wine that symbolizes the mortar used in constructing the Pyramids. If you’ve never been to a Passover Seder and want to give it a try, check out the annual Super Seder hosted by Cornell Dining. Reservations are good, but walk-ins are welcome.

You can make sandwiches out of matzah, though they tend to fall apart, and it’s fun to make matzah pizza with the kids. The best use for matzah during Passover is Matzah Brei, basically a matzah omelet made with crumbled-up matzah. It ends up more like a crisp, sweet pancake than like an omelet.

If you’re not Jewish, try not to be offended if some of your friends can’t eat your birthday cake or have some of your whisky with you this week. Whether you’re celebrating Passover or Easter or one of the even-older spring equinox festivals celebrating rebirth, we wish you a happy spring season.

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