Talk about abundance! Come Passover, contemporary American Jews have no shortage of kosher-le-Pesach foodstuffs with which to fill their stomachs and sate their appetites. Their immigrant forebears, in contrast, had to make do with limited fare. Stories of deprivation, of subsisting on matzo and butter, or bananas and sour cream, once made the rounds: In my family, they were as much a part of the holiday lore as tales of the biblical Exodus.
During the eight days of the festival, no one has to go hungry. Kosher-for-Passover foods now embrace a stunning array of products to suit every palate. Chinese food your bag? Kosher-for-Passover water chestnuts and teriyaki sauce await on the grocer’s shelf. Italian cuisine more your thing? Kosher-for-Passover marinara sauce, with or without garlic, is at the ready, as is balsamic vinegar.
Thanks to an ever-expanding array of prepackaged, mass-produced Passover foods, you can eat quite well during the holiday and even chow down on pretty much the same foods you do all year long. For good measure, and the festal fun of it, throw in a couple of items you’d rarely consume—cue the much maligned gefilte fish—and Pesach emerges as a gustatory bonanza.
Gefilte fish, as it happens, was one of the very first traditional Jewish foodstuffs to be mass produced, first for year-round consumption and then for the festival of freedom. By the late 1940s, its shape and flavor standardized to a fare-thee-well, jarred versions of what was hailed in Ashkenazi circles as the “Jewish national dish” were also saluted as “the equal of Grandma’s at its best.”
Other products followed in quick succession. Each year seemed to bring a new form of pascal bounty: flavored matzos, from “hygienic” to plain; different kinds of cooking oils, and beverages such as coffee, tea, and, yes, even Coca-Cola. By the mid-1950s, pride of place on the grocer’s shelf was increasingly reserved for cake mixes that gestured toward the real thing, tins of chewy almond and chocolate-flavored macaroons, and boxed candied delights such as fruit slices, a “Passover must.”
Barton’s Bonbonniere, a New York-based chain of confectionery shops that billed itself as the “candy favorite of millions of New Yorkers,” cultivated American Jewry’s sweet tooth by offering 32 kinds of attractively packaged “Passover delicacies.” At the top of the list was chocolate matzo, which, as a 1949 advertisement in The New York Times would have it, was “deliciously different! Barton’s incomparable chocolate, intriguingly blended with nuts in the form of actual Matzos!” Not one to rest on its laurels, the company continued to add to its repertoire, introducing consumers in 1956 to a milk chocolate version of the four sons of the Haggadah who could now be found “perched on pop sticks for convenient eating.”
Leaving nothing to chance, the manufacturers of Passover foods energetically promoted them, drawing on the latest catchphrases designed to appeal to the proudly modern homemaker. During the late 1940s, Hi Hat Planter’s Peanut Oil, for example, made sure to point out in that its product was “economical, practical, popular, handy,” covering all the bases. If the jaunty Mr. Peanut, the company’s iconic figure, had his way, no American Jewish household would go without peanut oil at Passover.
Convenience was another selling point, especially among the seemingly harried housewives of the 1950s. When, in 1955, Horowitz Bros. Margareten introduced its “speedy sponge cake mix” into the marketplace, it positioned its new product as a dual opportunity: a time-saving device amid the “insistent time pressures of modern living and working” and the equivalent of “grandmother’s hand-wrought achievements.” The New York Times, whose pages, then, as now, closely followed the latest culinary trends, went further still. Nowadays, it observed in March of that year, the “can opener has replaced chopping bowls, meat grinders, and other tools that were essential when all Passover foods had to be prepared from scratch.” The contemporary American Jewish housewife can “reduce to a minimum home cooking for the happy holiday.”
If that prospect turned out to be insufficiently compelling, the allure of novelty sealed the deal. Steeped in tradition, both familial and collective, Pesach turned out to be an occasion for trying something new. Lest “matzo monotony” set in, as one housewife of the early 1950s cautioned, the manufacturers of kosher-for-Passover products devised all manner of inventive recipes. Planter’s Peanut Oil, boasting in both Yiddish and English of “46 ways to better Passover meals,” came up with recipes for fried macaroons and “farfel toasties,” a baked egg-and-matzo-farfel concoction to accompany a hearty bowl of soup.
The B. Manischewitz Company, for its part, suggested Pesach celebrants try their hand at “farfeloons,” a fancifully named combo of coconut flakes and farfel. Others touted the virtues of cauliflower fritters in which the vegetable was boiled within an inch of its life, mashed with eggs, matzo meal, oil, a dash of salt and pepper, and then fried until brown on both sides. Dishes like this one, it was said, provided “real Passover enjoyment,” giving rise to innovation and ingenuity in the kitchen and, in turn, endowing the holiday with a distinctive palate.
Sometimes, though, the introduction of a new food generated controversy rather than welcome—and still does. Only a few years ago, as many of you will recall, the status of quinoa was up for grabs within Ashkenazi circles.
Some rabbinical authorities claimed that it was close kin to kitniyot, a category of foodstuffs such as grains or legumes that are deemed off-limits during Passover; others demurred, noting that quinoa was neither a grain or a legume, but a member of the same family as beets and spinach and hence eatable during Passover. Round and round it went, until 2013, when the Orthodox Union, the nation’s leading kashrut certifier, gave its OK. Even so, a number of Ashkenazi Jews continue to stay clear of quinoa on the grounds that it’s not a part of their family’s culinary tradition.
Quinoa had a happy fate; not so, peanut oil. As historian Zev Eleff recounts in his soon-to-be-published book, Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life, its popularity came aground in postwar America as an increasingly stringent approach toward religious practice took hold of the Orthodox Jewish community. Newly rebranded as a form of kitniyot, peanut oil was banished from the pesachdike table of frum Ashkenazi Jews and, by the early 1990s, retired from the Passover marketplace. A new and varied crop of cooking and salad oils—cottonseed, grapeseed, safflower, walnut, and olive—has taken its place.