Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chametz, schmametz

Since Passover falls in the middle of the week this year, we decided not to haul ourselves to New Jersey and have a seder at our house instead. However, inertia and entropy took over, so we got ourselves invited to two seders instead – one of them at the home of people we’ve never met, via our synagogue’s seder-matchmaking person (a.k.a. Pesach yenta).

I think I’m in a small minority of people who actually looks forward to the seder food. Call me an indiscriminate slob, but I actually like gefilte fish. Many folks have to slather it with horseradish to make it edible, but not me! I’m the kid who grew up on “mock chicken legs” (chicken-lips-burger squished onto a piece of wooden dowel and fried), and who loves English sausage, which is practically meat-free anyway. I am so all over bland starches. Ben can’t believe that I can tell the difference between various types of white-colored rice. But I also like charoset (chopped apples and nuts) and even the raw parsley and salt water. Or maybe everyone does because they’re so damn hungry by that point, I don’t know. Plus I like matzoh, except for the explosion of crumbs that occurs when you shatter a piece by biting into it. I especially like it Sephardic style during Passover, which for me means schmeared with peanut butter, another fave, even if I’m cheating by some estimations.

Many Jews abstain from eating wheat and other grains because once upon a time they might be confused with leavened wheat, which could result in bread, which you should avoid like the plague, pardon the expression, because the enslaved Jews had to hit the road tout de suite before their bread dough had risen, hence the rock-hard matzoh tradition. Observant Ashkenazic Jews of Easter European origin also don’t eat legumes and rice (because they could POTENTIALLY be ground and fermented and thus used as the basis for a bread dough of some sort, and that is BAD), so that lets out peas, beans and peanuts, which are legumes rather than tree nuts. This entire delicious class of foods is classified as chametz during Passover. Sephardic Jews don’t have this added restriction. Myself, I start hallucinating from carbohydrate deprivation by about the fourth day, so I need something that sticks to the ribs, and boxed potato starch just doesn’t cut it. You’re supposed to use that stuff as a thickener in place of cornstarch or flour, but I think it’s actually powdered Elmer’s Glue that gets reconstituted when you add liquid. And have you ever tried Passover noodles or breakfast cereal?

You’re also supposed to purge your home of chametz before Passover and destroy or lock away any chametzy foods in your cabinets or symbolically sell it to a non-Jew. Then we have the really OCD part: bedikat chametz, which is an old and bizarre custom or searching your house for any remaining overlooked crumb of chametz, even in the garbage. You have to do this while holding a candle and a feather. Don’t ask me. You can get as crazy as you want with this chametz disinfection – checking packaged food ingredients for disguised chametz (corn oil, maltodextrin, lecithin, etc.), not using regular toilet paper because the glue attaching the last sheet to the roll might have chametz in it, and on and on. I think it would be like suddenly developing a life-threatening allergy to salt, or being the boy in the bubble with no immune system where the slightest contact with otherwise harmless microbes will cause you to immediately pop your clogs. What was my point? Oh yes. So I consider abstaining from wheat alone as enough of a personal challenge or a reminder of the difficult lives of the old-time Jews. For Atkins dieters and cud-chewing mammals, maybe not so tough. I’ll leave it to others to interpret incredibly arcane rules and then the clever ways to get around them.

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