Ode: Matzo Brei at Home
“This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Scrambled into bits, fried French toast style, done up in butter or oil or schmaltz, salty or sweet… anyone growing up in a Jewish household has memories of fried matzo — and specific opinions about how it should be prepared. It’s more than a preference for the flavor or the consistency; it’s about how the smell of the matzo frying in the morning surfaces memories of your childhood.
There’s only one right way. Your own family’s way.
My mother would start by making the schmaltz, and I can still smell the chicken fat slowly rendered with onions, the smoky umami richness born of oppression. And the byproduct — gribenes (cracklings) sitting in a bowl, my dad sneaking bites even though we all knew it was terrible for his high blood pressure.
To make the dish, Mom would boil water and pour it over the matzo to soften it, then dredge pieces through an egg wash before dropping them into a cast iron skillet of the sizzling fat. The smell would fill our house and it meant we were waking up to a very special morning.
We’d give each piece a judicious sprinkling of salt and pepper, sometimes using a fork and sometimes just feeding our faces with our fingers.
In some years, the neighbors on the block would drop by for fried matzo brunch, coming to the house to help us celebrate our delivery from slavery by keeping my mom in the kitchen frying up food for hours.
I haven’t cooked my fried matzo in schmaltz for years. I tell myself it’s to keep things healthier, but really it’s because I’m too lazy to render the chicken fat and I always forget to look for it at the store. Instead, I use good butter on a hot griddle. And because it’s been sitting in boiling water for a minute or two, the matzo ends up puffy and crispy and brown on the edges. The pieces at the beginning of the batch tend to be larger, but by the time I get to the bottom matzo in the Pyrex, it’s more of a slurry that I’m dipping into the egg and drizzling into the pan — really a batter at that point — and I kind of love the gentle miracle of going from cooking French toast to savory pancakes with the same ingredients.
I’m a purist. Salt and pepper will always be the only thing I’ll add to my own dish. And though it doesn’t taste quite as wonderful as Mom’s (the schmaltz, the love, the baggage), it still brings me joy when I cook it and share it.
Sure, not being able to consume bread products — and damn, no grain spirits! — for eight days can be a pain. But that’s the point. It’s a time to be more intentional about what we put into our bodies and think about the ways we still allow ourselves to be enslaved. And to get ourselves out of our own personal Egypts (aka mitzrayim in Hebrew, which means “narrow places.”).
The difficulty of the holiday is the point. It’s a celebration and a challenge.
But matzo brei is more than just a consolation. It’s a reminder that even the biggest challenges give us a chance to create something delicious in our own lives.