Searching for matzo meal and connecting to our past
“Trust me, these are the best matzo balls you’ll ever have,” Susan swore when eating with her family my first year in 2013. Up until that point, I didn’t have many examples to follow. Growing up on Long Island, I was surrounded by my Jewish friends and their families, but they never invited me to dinner—mainly because they didn’t like the kitchen themselves. On our Puerto Rican side, my aunt married a Jewish man. When they moved to Long Island from the Bronx, they raised their family Jewish, but our side of the family never joined them for the holidays. My Indian father and my Puerto Rican-American and Italian mother had our own culinary traditions for Diwali and Christmas: curried chicken, arroz con habichuela, and lasagna—often simultaneously. We didn’t have a lot of money but our taste buds were rich.
In school, I always heard my friends talking about Jewish food as if it were a chore to eat, even though the meals sounded delicious: beef brisket, matzo ball soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish—well, maybe not gefilte fish. However, the only time I came close to eating Jewish food was at our local restaurant. The matzo ball soup was good, a little mushy, a little salty, but still edible.
In Michele’s family, Jewish recipes were sacred and were passed down orally and through years of proof, from one generation to the next. Michelle didn’t talk much about her Jewish side, but I knew she and her mother appreciated lavish holiday dinners, which brought them closer to their ancestors who no longer existed. Can relate. The Puerto Rican and Italian food my grandmother learned to cook was a tribute to her and her husband’s culture. The Indian food that my mother mastered respected the culture of my father and her departed mother-in-law. In our families, food was an heirloom, a portal to the past, and a part of our identities that helped us understand our complex American identity.
The first year I ate Michelle’s family recipe for matzo ball soup, I quickly realized that Susan wasn’t kidding. The balls were hearty, firm, thick and firmly packed like one of my grandmother’s legendary meatballs. Over the following years, Michelle let me help her roll the matzo balls—she took the honor and position very seriously. I was learning a new cuisine, one I had heard about since childhood and had always wondered about. As I played sous chef shaping Michelle’s amazing matzo balls, I asked questions about her life and family, and I felt closer as she told me stories about her and her grandmother.
These sacred suppers have diminished a bit in recent years. Not for any particular reason. Perhaps a change in our environment has set our traditions back. But this year, Susan insisted that Michelle return to the kitchen and make matzo ball soup. It feels more urgent this year, as if the passage of time has become more apparent to her, now that she’s entered her 70s. After searching around 10 supermarkets, we started to lose hope. But when we found Strait’s unsalted matzo meal, Michelle was on the verge of tears. Jars containing gefilte fish were placed on the bottom shelf. We thought about not telling Susan, but we couldn’t lie. After all, it was almost the Islamic New Year.
Raj Tawney, of Pembroke Pines, writes about race, identity, family, and food from his multicultural American perspective. He has contributed articles to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and other publications around the world. His debut memoir, The Colored Palate: A Delicious Journey Through the Mixed American Experience, will be available October 3, 2023. It will appear in Books & Books on October 24.