Thursday, April 21, 2011

Matzo, Matzo Man

Matzo man, this is the best you can do?
If you eat it, you know about matzo –  the unleavened bread, baked quickly so that the chosen could flee the Pharaoh and captivity. It is the only food Jews are commanded to eat – how do you like that – a long list of stuff that was forbidden and the one thing you have to eat is as dry and flavorful as a ration, which in a way it was/is, both in the biblical sense and well in the practical sense as well.

But what else do you know about matzo, not spiritually, but as it gets to the table? One company makes half of the matzo consumed during Passover in the US. Jeopardy style - What is Manischewitz? True and I really wouldn’t know what other company to guess. Manischewitz was founded in the late 1800s by one Rabbi Abramson, who either fleeing a pogrom in Germany or avoiding conscription in Lithuania emigrated to the US. The rabbi, like so many of our progenitors was not a legal immigrant. He came to the US via false papers, having purchased the passport of one Dov Behr Manischewitz, deceased. Abramson/Manischewitz landed in Cincinnati, where he worked for a few years performing ritual slaughters. He began baking matzo in his basement because it was hard to find matzo in Cincinnati at the turn of the 19th century, a statement that I would also have to believe is true.

His market wasn’t limited to the small southern Ohio Jewish population, matzo, because of its keeping properties, became a popular item for people moving west with the wagon train. An estimated ¾ of his matzo being purchased by people fleeing the east for the P/pacific promised lands. So popular, that within a dozen years, Manischewitz was able to build a new factory with (at the time) the biggest oven in the world. His mechanical factory lowered the price of matzo, changing the food from a labor-intensive Passover food, to an ingredient of frugality - matzo ball soup being the best example.

Matzo, as most people know it, is a thin, rectangular, cracker like bread, but that incarnation has more to do with the commercialization of the product than scriptural instruction. Although matzo itself derives from the word, mootz, literally meaning pressed or squeezed, it more figuratively means flatbread. Ethnofoodstorians believe for most of its history the matzo might have been like a pita bread, a fact backed up by communities that still produce their own matzo by hand use this shape. And there is no proscription against size either; some believe that matzo may have traditionally been up to 4 inches thick.

In recent years, people have been breaking one of my kitchen commandments, fancifying a simple food. The matzo is now packaged as artisan, eco, chocolate-dipped, with sun dried tomatoes. For a food occasionally referred to by the practicing as “the bread of our affliction”, a food that shares the same ingredients as paste, flour and water, I am not sure how much it can or should be fancied up.


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