At sundown on April 14, Jews all over the world will celebrate the start of Passover. I’ll be one of them. This eight-day holiday—my favorite in the Jewish calendar—commemorates the escape of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and the settling of what would become Israel. It’s a bigger-than-life holiday full of cinematic events: building the pyramids, Pharaoh’s daughters finding baby Moses floating on the Nile, Moses transforming his staff into a serpent, the ten plagues; the Angel of Death, the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, forty years wandering in the desert, the golden calf, Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments. It took Cecil B. DeMille a cast of thousands to tell the story in his 3-1/2 hour epic film, The Ten Commandments.
Like most Jewish holidays, Passover has a strong food element—although the holiday is defined as much by what you can’t eat as by what you can. That includes bread or any food made with flour, because the Hebrew slaves, in their haste to flee Egypt, had no time to leaven their bread dough (to make an early form of pita). So Jews the world over eat matzo (a cracker-like unleavened bread) for eight days to commemorate the holiday.
Not that we feel deprived, because matzo is a delicacy in its own right (especially artisanal matzo baked in a wood-burning oven, like Vermatzah.) And Jews being the resourceful food lovers that we are have devised a myriad of matzo delicacies, from fried matzo we eat for breakfast (think Jewish migas) to matzo meal sponge cake for dessert to garlic and herb grilled matzo. OK, the latter is a dish of my own devising, not part of the Passover canon, but it tastes really good.
Passover overlaps with an even older holiday—the pagan rite of spring. (For that matter, so does Easter.) Several spring foods and edible symbols of spring figure on the Seder (ritual meal) plate and in the meal itself—including lamb, eggs, and young green herbs. For example, the roasted lamb shank on the plate symbolizes the mark of blood the Israelites place on their doorposts, so that when the Angel of Death flew over slaying the Egyptian firstborn males, their sons would be spared.
The inclusion of these foods served practical as well as ceremonial uses. Lambs are born in springtime and thus are especially plentiful. Herbs sprout in the warm spring soil. (In one symbolic ritual, we dip sprigs of parsley in salt water to remind us of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves.) And eggs are a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings—served on the Passover plate and pursued in the Christian hunt for Easter eggs.
Passover has no traditional link to grilling—except in the broad sense that prior to the last two hundred years, virtually all human cooking was done over a live fire. But in the Raichlen household, any holiday becomes an excuse for firing up the grill. Ashkenazi Jews (whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe) often serve brisket—braised when my grandparents hosted the holiday; smoked when I or my kids make it today. Sephardic Jews (from the Mediterranean), like my Aunt Rosa from Salonika, Greece, serve lamb—and, at my house, we spit-roast it as lamb-eating peoples around Planet Barbecue have done for thousands of years.
If you’re Jewish, we wish you happy Passover, and if you’re Christian, happy Easter. If you worship fire, you’ve come to the right place.