Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Passover Shopping Project

With Passover starting tomorrow night, it seemed appropriate to start off with my first non-introductory post talking about Passover.

To make a long story very, very short, Passover celebrates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. We eat certain ritual foods and perform certain ritual blessings and activities during two special dinners called seders. The holiday lasts eight days, during which time we are not supposed to eat any “chametz,” which is a whole category of foods including leavened bread, foods made with wheat flour other than matzah, and, in the Ashkenazi tradition (of which I am a part), we also don’t eat corn, rice, or legumes. This eliminates a rather large number of foods from our regular diet.

Thus, in the weeks leading up to Passover, there is a great deal of preparation to do, involving shopping for special foods to eat for the week as well as cleaning the house of chametz and acquiring dishes and utensils to use so that any food we cook or eat will not be contaminated by any chametz remaining on our regular dishes, in the oven, cupboards, or refrigerator.

This “Passover shopping” project means finding replacements or alternatives for just about everything, from ketchup and mayonnaise to starchy staples like pasta, bread, and cereal. Why ketchup? Well, most commercial ketchups are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, and we don’t eat corn products. Why mayonnaise? You have to be careful what oil was used.

We used to live in a suburb of Philadelphia that had a very large religious Jewish population. This meant that the two major supermarkets near us carried quite a lot of kosher products in general, and they brought in a lot of kosher for Passover products in the Passover shopping season. We’re not talking about just matzah. We’re talking just about anything you could think of made from potato starch or potato flour instead of corn or wheat flour, from lollipops to pasta. Cereals made from matzah meal. Kosher for Passover potato chips (not difficult, really), cheeses, canned and frozen products, premade Passover pizza, with dough made from matzah meal, matzah ball soup mixes (of course), potato latke mix, potato kugel mix, Passover egg noodles… the list goes on. And it’s all specially produced and specially watched just for the Passover season.

One thing I should note is that more Jews keep kosher for Passover than keep kosher during the rest of the year, so the market for these products is much bigger than the market for standard kosher products is the rest of the year. (This is a topic that warrants a series of posts in the future, incidentally. I’ll get to it. But not right now.)

Now we live in northern San Diego County, a place with very few Jews. The kosher sections of our local supermarkets carry only very basic products during the year, and finding kosher meat is very difficult. On Passover, they set up an endcap or two with matzah, grape juice, matzah ball soup mix, and some macaroons. Granted, macaroons are tasty, but you can’t eat macaroons three meals a day for eight days, can you?

Certainly, you can eat many fresh vegetables and fruits, so you’re not limited to packaged stuff, but you need the proteins and starches to build a meal. We find ourselves eating quite a lot of eggs and potatoes on Passover.

There is a store about 25 minutes from us with a pretty big kosher section, so for two years, we went down there to do our shopping. This year, we decided to go all out and drive up to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, where there are several all-kosher stores and restaurants. Passover shopping was very easy there, very fun, the over 1-1/2-hour drive notwithstanding, and very expensive.

In general, a weeks’ worth of Passover shopping costs, I’d say, three to four times what a standard weeks’ shopping would cost. On top of that is the purchase of whatever utensils, pots, dishes, tablecovers, and kitchen accessories you need to acquire or replace. The idea is that you accumulate all of these things and then don’t need to buy them each year, but it’s hard when you’re first starting out. For example, last year I bought extremely cheap frying pans at Wal-Mart. They were terrible. Just awful. So this year I decided to buy a nicer set of pots so that cooking would be more pleasant. The same went for knives. I went ahead and bought a slightly nicer set of knives to use this year. Those, we’ll keep around for next year, of course. We do a fair amount of cooking throughout the year, but we do even more on Passover, so having useful cooking utensils was an important consideration.

We also decided to go with paper this year for plates, bowls, cups, and flatware. This may not be an environmentally sound decision, but it’s much easier and cheaper in the short run than buying new sets of dishes.

All in all, keeping Passover here is more challenging, and not just because finding kosher for Passover food is more difficult. When you’re surrounded by others keeping kosher for Passover with you, it’s easier to stick with it. But when the guy in the next cubicle over is having pizza while you are eating your matzah with cream cheese, you can feel a little left out. But that’s also another series of posts waiting to happen.

I’ll finish by saying that although Passover itself is only 8 days long, the preparations start weeks in advance, and at least a day or two before Passover, you need to have finished switching over your kitchen so that you can start cooking! My husband is hard at work in the recently switched-over kitchen making meatballs for our second seder right now, in fact! (Don’t worry; I’ll be doing some of the cooking, too. But he’s the meat maker in the family.)

I know I left out a lot of details, and I didn’t really get into all the laws here – limited space, you know – but I’d love to entertain questions or comments from you if you want more information on anything I touched upon here.


Devorie Newman said...

Wish I would have known about the drive up to LA before it happened. We could have had you guys over for lunch or dinner (or better yet, gone out to eat).

Gaby said...

Lovely, Jessica!

Firstly, what Nth San Diego lacks in quantity with respect to the Jewish population, it more than makes up for in Quality!! :o)

Hear, hear on the cost of shopping and preparing for Pesach. We have probably spent close to $2K this year, taking into account that this is our first Pesach in our own home as a married couple (hence all the first time expenses that you mentioned), and we tried to avoid the pitfall of the "it's only for 8 days, so I'm going to buy the cheapest rubbish I can find" pitfall that you accurately portrayed.

Wishing you and the family a Chag kasher V'sameach!!