A Recipe for Passover

Reprint from The Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2008

Ancestral ingredients are necessary for authentic cuisine, and a longer life.

Our ancestors had better eating habits than we do — that seems to be the current thinking. February marked the inauguration of the first global seed vault in northern Norway, a place to preserve vanishing plant species that were grown or foraged by generations past. Almost daily, it seems, the news media report on another initiative to protect indigenous ways of farming and preparing food. And medical studies in places as far flung as Alaska, Hawaii, Australia and Finland show that returning to a more traditional diet can get humans back on the path to better health.

But anyone who is sitting down to a Passover meal — a major holiday feast that begins this evening — might wonder whether traditional European Jewish cooking is an exception to the rule.

After all, isn’t this cuisine practically synonymous with calorie overload and indigestion? Hearing the Yiddish names for these foods — kishka, matzo brei, gehakte leber or schmaltz — is enough to make my gallbladder wince. Surely I am not the only one who has memories of rolling home from my Nana’s Passover so overdosed on oil, starch, salt and gassy foods that it took days before I could return to polite company.

Now, as a family doctor who specializes in nutrition and health, I have come to fully realize the deadly effect of this kind of diet; many of my Nana’s contemporaries, including my grandfather, suffered untimely deaths from heart disease, stroke or diabetes.

Was Nana’s cooking really the diet of my European ancestors? Apparently not. While my great-grandmother Esther’s food, prepared over a wood-fueled stove and served up by lamplight, provided an excellent array of healthy ingredients, my Nana’s food, served at her Formica dining table on Cape Cod, was a Betty Crocker-inspired, Crisco-laden, refined-flour heart stopper. Something had happened to these recipes as they made their long voyage from the Old World to the New.

Take the emblematic Passover food: matzo. Both in Nana’s kitchen and in her own mother’s kitchen in Eastern Europe, “matzo” stood for unleavened bread. But this is where the similarity ended. Traditional matzo was a handmade, nutty flatbread made from hard wheat. Nana, by contrast, served a packaged, pasty cracker that had no more flavor than air.

The roasted goose that had spent its life merrily pecking in my great-grandmother’s frontyard and, as a result, oozed schmaltz (oil) rich in healthy omega-3 fats gave way to a corn-fed, hormone-enhanced cage dweller from the Stop and Shop freezer.

But perhaps the greatest transformation of all overtook the gefilte fish. My great-grandmother’s gefilte fish was made of line-caught carp, ground up bones and all, mixed with onion and fresh spices and stuffed into its own nutrient-rich skin. But in its travel across the sea, it had become a mishmash of low-grade fish parts flavored with an array of additives including carrageenan, high-fructose corn syrup, vegetable gum and MSG.

Ultimately, authentic Jewish cuisine adheres to the general rule that traditional foods are healthier than our American versions of them. Sadly, like so many other indigenous diets, including the much-revered Mediterranean diet, this cuisine mutated beyond recognition once it arrived on these shores. These already neglected recipes are at risk of being lost forever.

The consequences are our soaring rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. One answer to this epidemic could be as simple as recovering authentic recipes from our great-grandmothers’ kitchens. This Passover, I’m doing my part. I’m going to figure out how to stuff a gefilte fish.