The last few months have been awfully busy. Having recently finished a rough draft of my next novel, I’ve been focused on working with my alpha readers and trying to revise, restructure and basically reinvent my ever-evolving storyline. All this is done in stolen moments in between a 10-hour work day and household responsibilities… laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings when all I want to do is write. And before I knew it, Passover was upon us and I was not prepared.
Being empty-nesters, the holidays are just not the same any more, especially because my children, and family in general, are spread out across the world. But I still wanted to celebrate the occasion and preserve the traditions, so out came the cookbooks and beloved recipes. I’m not a particularly talented cook, nor am I overly ambitious. And as our diets are restricted throughout the week, I sometimes am at a loss to create things without the prohibited chometz. Or as our family haggadah indicates, we are to avoid anything that “puffs up.” As a side note—or maybe not—I think this haggadah is spot on with regard to a spiritual cleansing of pride and self-importance. Leavened breads, cakes and other yeast or flour products inflate and thicken our bodies. All year long, we are full of chometz, full of ourselves, with no room for God or anything else. For one week, we are told to eat matzah, which is flat and bland, and contemplate our lives and our freedoms. It is the complete opposite of haughtiness and puffiness.
OK, if I haven’t lost you yet, let me get back to my post…
In looking at the family favorites, I noticed how I have tweaked recipes here and there. Ingredients have been swapped out, preparations have been revised. In other words, the recipes evolved, much like my latest novel, depending on whose voice had taken the lead. Depending on which grandmother, aunt, or cousin passed it along, or from which country, culture and timeframe, the difference was notable.
Are you still with me?
I had previously written about Lady Judith Montefiore, and the impact of her cookbook on Anglo-Jewry, but started to think about food in relation to our identity. I am ethnically a Russian Jew who was born in Argentina. But I am also a (proud) naturalized citizen of the United States of America and have been highly influenced by the culture in my adopted land.
“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”
That statement was published by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825; and I think, it still holds true! Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently stated that “Dishes evolve, impacted by trade, war, famine and a hundred other forces.” I find it all fascinating and here is just one example of how recipes evolve and cultures intermingle.
Almond sweets were all the rage in Sicily; but by 1552, they had gained popularity and became known to the rest of modern-day Italy, Spain, France, and England. And across the pond, in a hand-written cookbook published by the first lady, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery contained a recipe for almond cookies. So, by the 17th century, we have the word macaron in French or macaroon in English. At this time, the world was also introduced to the Sicilian word maccarruni. In English, of course, we know it as macaroni.
To complicate things a bit, a fad developed in the United States in the late 1800s with the importation of coconut from India. Coconut cream pies, ambrosia and custards were very popular— as was the coconut macaroon, which suddenly began appearing in Jewish cookbooks. In 1871, Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book included a recipe for this new dessert; and because they didn’t contain flour, they soon became an American Passover tradition.
Never let it be said that the French were left behind in the world of baking! Soon after coconut macaroons first appeared, bakers Gerbet and Desfontaines created a sandwich cookie by putting almond paste or ganache between two individual macarons. The new cookie was called “le macaron Parisien.” In the United States, the word macaron now referred to the French ganache cookie, leaving macaroon to describe the coconut confection we eat all throughout this holiday week.
Don’t forget the word macaroni. We think of it as elbow pasta. Right? Au contraire! In 18th century England, macaroni had an altogether different meaning. Wealthy gentlemen, who sported outlandish hairstyles and pretentious fashions, were called Macaronis. Why? Because while they did the Grand Tour across the Continent, they acquired a taste for Italian pasta, which was considered an exotic food sensation. For those of us who grew up singing “Yankee Doodle,” this explanation helps to make sense of the song. The chorus makes fun of a disheveled Yankee soldier who attempts to look fashionable. Remember? “…stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.”
At this point, you may be asking yourself: How is she going to tie all these ponderings together? Don’t worry. I’ll tell you.
This year for Passover, I couldn’t find a nice brisket in my grocery store, so I chose to make an American-style pot roast. And because my husband doesn’t care for chicken soup, we ate our kneidalach (matzah balls) in Argentine-style tuco (similar to a Pomodoro sauce). I wonder what Lady Judith might have opined of my international Pesach menu. And what of our beloved, Jane Austen? Did she have an interest in food? In one of her many letters to her sister, Cassandra, she wrote:
“My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason – I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton to-morrow.”
Both of these entrées stem from French cuisine. I wonder if Jane ever dined on anything quite so exotic as pasta? I know for a fact she was acquainted with a few Macaronis—at the very least she wrote about them! I can think of a few Austen dandies, can’t you? But then again, our Miss Jane was never at a loss for words about pride…
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.”
I wonder what she would have to say about Pharaoh? Talk about being “puffed up”!