March 15, 2007

"Pesach for the Rest of Us" - a book review

I was raised Catholic. And further, I'm not Jewish. So what business do I have reviewing a book called "Pesach for the Rest of Us" by Marge Piercy?

Well, it was sent to me with the hope that I might review it, and I can be objective, at the very least!
Pesach is a holiday filled with rituals where every action and thought has a purpose. Upon reading the book, it was surprising to me how many of these were about food... What you can & can't eat, how you should eat it, and what you should do with the food and wine during the ceremony. Each portion of the ritual has a distinct and specific reason why it's included in the ritual.

It's not mysterious as to why that would be... Everyone eats, everyone enjoys good food, and it's something that everyone can experience and relate to. (of course, one should never use the word 'everyone' but I'm making a point.)*grin*

If I were into rituals, if I found something moving about poems and singing and symbolic consumption of foodstuffs (and of course, if I were Jewish) Pesach would be THE event of the year. In fact, according to Piercy, many Jews who don't go to temple or practice their religion during the rest of the year find a reason to participate in a Pesach event.

I consider myself pretty well read; I am familiar with the belief systems of many religions. Christmas trees and Easter bunnies, the symbols of THE most Catholic of events, are actually pagan carryovers. The sexy fertility rituals of Lupercalia were replaced with the chaste love-notes of St. Valentine's day. In studying about Kashrus, for the benefit of my clients who keep kosher, I've become rather familiar with many of the Jewish rules about food and holidays.

OK, enough religion, let's talk about the food.

For Pesach, there's a ritualistic consumption of food and wine, each item having a symbolism: parsley, which is dipped in salt water, lettuce, horseradish, roasted eggs, oranges, and of course, matzoh. If you don't already know what the symbols represent, there's probably no need to go into it here. (get the book!) each section includes some history, poetry and the author's personal anecdotes. It was a very interesting read.
Yeah, I actually read the books I'm invited to review (gasp) which is why it takes a couple weeks for me to post these blog entries. Not to mention that this one, with a subject mattern of a specific Jewish holiday full of symbolism, I had to keep referring to wikipedia to figure out what stuff meant. It was enlightening, though it took the better part of an afternoon. I didn't work this hard on book reports in school! But I digress...
There are LOTS of recipes, for matzoh ball soup, matzoh brei, tzimmes, kugels ...and a few recipes for from-scratch gefilte fish, which the author swears even she wouldn't make again. I think that something that may be especially useful is that she includes several ways to 'use up' the extra leftover matzoh.

Cute flash cartoon. Try this link if the youtube wouldn't play.

Also included are several recipes for this curious fruit-and-nut compote called Charoset, which seems kind of like a coarsely-chopped trail mix, with apples, sweet wine and cinnamon. Sometimes ginger, coconut, orange zest, whatever tastes good to you. You're not supposed to say you like Charoset It's intended to symbolize mortar... The ‘Israelites’ (were) fleeing an oppressive situation in Egypt. In Egypt they were slaves, building pyramids with mortar and bricks. Piercy doesn't explain the mortar analogy, (so I gotta say thanks Debra for the info included in the above italics) but acknowledges that it's more of a justification of getting something sweet on the seder plate, to contrast against the other bitter/bland stuff. Anyway, it does sound delicious.

I've been given several books to review, but I only post reviews about the ones for which I have positive things to say. There's enough negativity in the world already, I don't need to add to it.

I'm not Jewish! Can I still make Charoset, then? Rather, do I allow my self to make it, knowing it symbolically represents the opression of others? Will it still taste sweet, or (perhaps as intended) bittersweet, such as when tears fall into the batter for the wedding cake in Like Water for Chocolate?

As a hedonist, I'd rather make the Quail in Rose Sauce that stirs passion in everyone who eats it.

Like I said, I don't need to add to the negativity.

That's pretty deep thinking for a food blog!

Last thing I ate or drank: a chicken cacciatore sandwich, followed by cup after cup of Lemon-Ginger Tea over the 3+ hours it took me to research and type up this review.

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  1. I go to Pesach dinner with my husband's family every year and though I'm afraid I don't have the patience I should for the ritual, I do love the charoses. I would make it and eat it outside of the pesach dinner.

    I think, if you think about how it tastes, it is supposed to contain moror (bitterness) and sweetness at the same time. So it represents not only the bitterness of the slavery, but also the sweetness of freedom as well. So eating it is not only a remembrance of the bitter times, but a reminder of the sweet times as well.

    And yes, that is the length I will go to justify making charoses for myself. I will write an essay.

  2. Feel free to make any of the traditional Jewish holiday treats that you'd like. There is no harm in it.

    I, personally, LOVE charoset! It's delicious. When you spread charoset on matzah bread, put a little bit of fresh horseradish on it and top it with another piece of matzah it's quite delicious and called a Hillel sandwich.

    Another thing I just love is gefilte fish when it's made with salmon, onions and dill, hold the sugar, please.

    If you'd like to attend a seder call a synagogue near to you. Almost all have a public seder. They are slow, but they are a lot of fun, too.

    If you'd like to see a hilarious family seder, rent the DVD "When Do We Eat?" It's a riot!


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