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‘Tis the night before Passover. I am awaiting pizza delivery and ruminating on how once-a-year traditions like the Passover holiday and two Seders have evolved or uniquely marked the passage of time in my life. The night-before tradition of glorying in chametz (wheat- or bread-related products) before they’re off limits for a week is part of the whole picture, as well as the ‘breaking’ of the week-long diet in a restaurant or at home. The week of no bread or bread-products for a not so religious creature like myself is typically bookended by a “chametz fest” of pizza on one end and cheeseburgers on the other.

Nowadays, my Passover tradition is making the chicken soup for my sister’s annual seder. There’s comfort in having a competency, and chicken soup is a fine one. My sister covers brisket, kugel and a rather extraordinary flourless chocolate cake. And I will also make speckled meringue cookies once or twice during the week. I don’t really do gluten anymore, so for me the week of bread deprivation is not so tough. The other day my husband said “Passover is easier for you every year now, isn’t it?” And I just made a discovery that is going to make this year easier still.

When I was a child at Passover time, I helped my mother convert the kitchen – that is, clean it thoroughly, banish the chametz and set it up anew to adhere to the laws of keeping Kosher. (Tribal elders didn’t go around brushing the corners of the backsplash with a white feather as happened in some households, I heard.) The kitchen conversion was a big job, and included taking our flatware out to the backyard in the black, enameled turkey roasting pan and tossing several handfuls of dirt on it. The idea behind that was you got it dirty enough that you had to do a hell of a good job washing it so that it was fit to be used again. Others literally buried the flatware and dug it back up, but we were not that extreme. One of my jobs was replacing the shelf paper in the cupboards. How many religions have built in Spring cleaning to a holiday? The real question, I guess is, which religion hasn’t?

We did not keep kosher the rest of the year but we did it up – to the hilt – on Passover. If a tub of cottage cheese or quart of milk wasn’t labeled Kosher for Passover at the grocery store, it did not make it into our kitchen for those eight days. Luckily, we lived in NY where this sort of search was a fun treasure hunt. The Dannon yogurts and Coca Cola cans were inscribed with the Hebrew “kosher l’pesach” too. Not so in central Virginia, where my brother settled. (Anytime my parents went to Virginia for Seder, they loaded the back of the car with Kosher compatible groceries for the week.) New York and LA are the only two places I ever lived where the kosher products were varied and fun to find, and for my first few years living in Los Angeles I was pretty frum in my efforts to segregate the milk from the dairy, and sequester or banish the non-kosher foods.

Not to make this a Keeping Kosher 101, but dairy foods are not be mixed with foods containing meat – so no lasagna or chicken pot pie for you! – so you have to keep them separate in the kitchen. Hence, the two sets of plates and flatware. (And of course any pork products or shellfish, like crab and shrimp, are right out.) The healthiest foods, fruits, vegetables, fish and eggs, fall into a third neutral category that can hang companionably with the meat or milk products – proving that even before the US government started pushing the food pyramid that God and the Godly PR team also had campaign strategies to pedal fruits and veg as a boon to a stubborn and recalcitrant human race.

Speaking of segregation, Ashkenazi Jews eschew eating rice at Passover but I said nerts to that a decade ago. I don’t eat matzah anymore, I certainly couldn’t make it without rice. Jews love to debate the ins and outs of what’s acceptable in the Kosher-for-Passover diet and what is not, and so I really appreciated the train of thought that ran through the Jewish community of San Francisco soon after I moved here that basically said, Passover is meant to be enjoyable and inclusive so let’s not make the diet so restrictive that we lose our minds. Amen. And I also say, let’s join align Sephardim and Ashkenazim side by side. Inclusiveness feels nicer than separation.

My new and non-traditional preparation tonight, however, was to make a batch of my gluten free granola. Feeling a bit sad about the upcoming deprivation of one of my breakfast staples, I followed a curious train of thought and googled “are oats chametz?” What I got was a lengthy explanation about oats being chametz only if they are soaked in water or treated with steam – grains in water = chametz at Passover time apparently. Armed with that information, I visited the Bob’s Red Mill website and wrote them a plaintive question: are your rolled oats heat treated with any steam or water? The answer that came back was no they are not. My new best friend from Bob’s customer service replied, “Yes the rolled oats are heat treated. The oat groat (de-hulled oat) is placed in a dry kiln and brought up to 200°F for 4 to 5 hours to stabilize the enzyme action. The oats are then cooled and stored. This is the only process for Whole Oat Groats, Steel Cut Oats and Scottish Oats.”  This was truly great news for me, and I hope it will please others to know it. I will be sowing my oats, not soaking them, all week long. 🙂

Wishing a very happy Passover to all those who celebrate and enjoy these festivities with friends and family! Lots of love, and best wishes for finding some new expression of freedom this year!

Janice