There are many adventures to be had on an island in the Lesser Antilles, but I hadn’t anticipated one 2,900 years in the making. But hey, I guess that’s just island life.
Let me elaborate. First, a little background about myself. I’m Jewish. Not in a religious, going to temple, keeping Kosher kinda way. More in a secular, cultural kinda way. I love the food and the traditions and try to remember the major holidays when they come around so I can enjoy special dishes I don’t eat the rest of the year. Passover, with its epic tale of slavery and freedom, vengeance and redemption, and, literally, blood and pestilence, is my favorite. There are so many symbolic dishes we eat: horseradish for the bitter lives Jews suffered as slaves in Egypt; charoset for the mortar Jews made to build the great temples of Pharaoh; and the most symbolic – matzo.
Matzo represents the unrisen bread the Jews carried with them in their haste to flee Egypt. Religious Jews replace bread and all leavened foods with matzo during the eight days of Passover to commemorate this Exodus. In my family, not being religious, we ate it during the symbolic seder dinners and kept a box around for dishes like matzo brie or to snack on. Matzo is flat, has the consistency of a cracker, and very little flavor. Although I was not deprived of bread or leavened things during this time, and although matzo is no great culinary achievement, I loved to eat it with butter as a special treat. There was no other time in the year I would. Matzo is as important to me to eat on Passover as candy corn is on Halloween.
Luckily, even as I’ve moved to less and less populated areas with less and less Jews, I have always been able to find a box (some fresher than others) of either Streit’s or Manischewitz’s matzo at the local grocery store whenever Passover arrived. That is, until now.
Waking up and realizing the first night of Passover was, well, that night, my girlfriend and I rushed around to all of the stores on our island trying to find ingredients for Passover. Okay, couldn’t find horseradish, no big deal. Couldn’t find sunflower seeds for our nut-free charoset recipe, not the end of the world. But in store after store there were no battered, wrinkled boxes of matzo waiting for me. And this, I couldn’t live without.
Finally we drove to the other side of the island to go to the larger supermarket. It had been a long day and I was tired, but I doggedly walked up and down each aisle, twice, looking for the telltale boxes. Finally, a helpful employee asked what I was looking for.
“Oh, thank you,” I replied, suddenly confident I would find it now. “Do you have any matzo?”
For an instant, the employee looked unsure and my confidence faltered. Then a smile spread over his face.
“You want a six-pack or a single?”
A six pack? Maybe that’s how they sell matzo here. Why not? Move it quickly. Not like you can sell it any other time of the year…
“Oh, a six-pack I guess. If it’s cheaper.”
The employee nodded and led me down the aisle toward the refrigerated shelves. I glanced around quickly, then my heart began to sink. He pointed towards cans of a popular energy drink.
“Matzo?” My voice wavered and died.
The uncertainty returned to the employee’s face.
“Monster?” He replied.
After going back and forth a few more times with even less success, it became clear he’d never heard of matzo. It also became clear this last supermarket, the largest on the island, did not now have, nor ever seemed to have had, a single box.
Those better prepared for life are shaking their fingers right now. “What’s with the big surprise?” they scoff. “You moved to an island with 4,000 people, maybe, in the Eastern Caribbean. Of course you’re not going to find matzo.”
And those better prepared and smarter are snorting and shrugging their shoulders. “What’s the big deal? Over on St. Thomas, just a ferry ride away, there’s the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. You’re telling me you can’t get matzo?”
Alright, alright. You’re right. I’m a bad planner and cheap to boot. So Passover snuck up on me and I didn’t want to shell out the funds or time to trek to another island. So what’s a Jew to do?
Make her own, of course.
What! Make your own matzo? That’s like Christians making their own Peeps for Easter. In all my 42 Jewish years, I have never heard of anyone actually making their own matzo. But what else could I do?
Okay, in all honesty, I did not make it – my girlfriend did. For more on that, click here. But, after taking inspiration from the great Cecil de Mille’s Ten Commandments (which we watched instead of doing a Seder – not a terrible replacement, no?), we decided if a host of fleeing Jews led by Charlton Heston could make matzo in the pre-industrial desert of Egypt, why couldn’t we in an un-air-conditioned cottage in the Caribbean. We at least had a stove for God’s – ahem – goodness sake.
To make it a bit more challenging (for there is nothing that celebrates Judaism like struggle), we decided to try to make Kosher for Passover matzo which leaves only 18 minutes to completely bake the matzo once water hits flour. That way, the dough can be assured not to rise. Not that it would ever be truly Kosher (our kitchen – a place where dairy and meat frolic together in multitudes of dishes before plunging hand in hand into our stomachs – is not Kosher), but it was fun trying.
After 18 minutes and then some, our matzo were ready. They were thinner than the ones I’d always bought in the store and weren’t the snow white color flecked with brown I was used to, but as I bit into the light wafer my mouth flooded with recognition. Yep, there it was. The moderately crispy, watery bland flavor I love.
So it took living on a thumbnail of rock in the middle of the ocean (and yes, some plain old lazy unpreparedness) to push me to carry on a tradition my culture has continued for almost 3,000 years. Thanks, St. John. Can’t wait to see what adventure comes next.