Holidays: More than the usual


Holiday foods have been on my mind lately. So many people refer to “the holidays” when speaking of Thanksgiving and Christmas, with New Year’s Eve maybe thrown into the mix as well. Hanukkah and Kwanzaa also come at that time. There’s a lot going on.

But in my family, we’re in the midst of an entirely different assortment of holidays right now.

I heartily enjoyed Paczki Day earlier this month, and then went right into baking hamantaschen to give to family and friends this past weekend for Purim, a holiday which commemorates Queen Esther undermining the plans of the evil vizier Haman to exterminate the Jews. It is traditional, according to the Book of Esther 9:22, to send “portions of food one to another, and gifts to the poor.” The gifts of food are called mishloach manot [mish-loh-AHK mah-NOHT], which are supposed to contain at least two different types of ready-to-eat foods; and one of those foods is hamantaschen, triangular-shaped filled cookies. There is an annual debate as to the favorite flavors - Old World prune or poppy seed vs. new-fangled chocolate or marzipan. I never play favorites, though. I’ll happily eat any of them.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, which is always celebrated at my house with brown soda bread as well as corned beef and cabbage, even though I’m the only one who ever eats the vegetable. But in just a few weeks, we go back to the Jewish calendar: Passover begins at sundown on April 14.

I bake my own matzah, the unleavened “bread of affliction” that is a ritual food at Passover. Most people wonder why I do this, since it’s so easy to buy a box of it. But the process commemorates three events for me: the flight from Egypt; the Spanish Inquisition, since I use a recipe that was entered into evidence against a woman tried for being a Jew; and the Holocaust, since I scrape the last bits of egg white from the shell each time I crack one open after reading about this habit in the biography of a survivor. In preparing the matzah I am reminded of oppression, but also of salvation and of freedom and of blessings. And homemade matzah actually tastes good! If you’ve ever tried the packaged stuff, you’ll nod in agreement with a friend of mine who once described it as tasting “like wall.”

But it is commanded to eat matzah at a Seder, no matter how bad it tastes. And while one might think that they would be rather dreary and depressing - focusing on plagues and persecution as primary topics - instead, Seders are heartwarming and sometimes even lively events. They are filled with family and with multiple courses of abundant food ... and with notoriously bad desserts, too, I must add. Try taking away flour and using ground matzah while baking sweets ... you’ll see.

And then, while still in the midst of the eight days of Passover, all of a sudden it will be Easter. Since I follow no rules and celebrate everything, that means light, sweet hot cross buns will be baked rather than only eating matzah, far too many jelly beans will be devoured, and lamb or asparagus - Springtime dishes - will likely be served. Then, of course, we’ll find ourselves with the requisite deviled eggs and other ways to use up leftovers from the holiday feast. Food is either polished off entirely, especially if there are any teenage or college-age males at home, or it multiplies like tribbles and you seem to eat it for days afterward. There’s rarely any in-between, is there?

As I was going over all of this, trying to schedule my cooking and baking as well as which dishes and courses and foods I might write about for this page in subsequent weeks, Craig noted the distinction between “holiday” and “holy day.” St. Patrick’s Day was a holiday, whereas Easter is a holy day. It seems odd to talk about holiday foods and to, perhaps, lose the specialness of those which are grounded in faith by jumbling everything together under the same term. Matzah is integral to Passover and to the Seder, whereas green beer is just fun to drink. It’s more appropriate, I think, to refer to the former as a holy food, while the latter is clearly a holiday one.

But either way, without too much linguistic debate, my philosophy remains the same. No matter which celebration I’m feasting at, I subscribe to the semi-joking adage about the Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

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