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Ode to the matzah ball


Call it the Case of the Battling Bubbes. Friends of mine, a young couple, invited me to a Friday night Shabbos meal in their small apartment several years ago. Two of the other guests at the hosts’ table were the wife’s grandmothers, both of them in their 90s, who lived in the neighborhood.

After a sumptuous meal came dessert. Provided by the guests. Each grandmother brought out a plateful of her specialty — homemade mandel bread (almond cookies, also known as Mandelbrot).

I took a slice of each.

“Which one do you like best?” each bubbe asked.

How do you answer such a question without offending either senior citizen?

I pulled out the Mom card.

“They’re both delicious,” I said, calling on my meager diplomacy skills, “but my mother makes the best mandel bread in the world.”

Which is true, in my subjective opinion. Mom’s, which she made until her advancing years and decreasing manual dexterity made the task impossible, was crisp and tasty.

Who could question a son’s maternal loyalty?

The grandmothers accepted my reply; everyone is proud of his or her family’s cooking or baking skills.

In my circles, mandel bread, from a bakery or from one’s own kitchen, is ubiquitous. At least in part of the culinary, Ashkenazic Jewish world where I grew up. It’s usually made in the shape of a thin, oval loaf, and cut into individual slices. It’s a sign of gastronomic ability.

But one item outranks mandel bread as an indicator of Yiddishe kitchen acumen.

Matzah balls.

Traditionally associated with Passover’s seder night meal (or not, if one’s religious tradition eschews gebrokts, “broken” matzah coming into contact with water during the holiday, possibly becoming chametz), served in a bowl of chicken soup after a few hours of Haggadah readings and rituals, matzah balls have taken on a symbolic life of their own as a staple of Jewish cuisine beyond the seder, a year-round representative of Jewish culture.

They’re not just Pesach fare anymore.

Say “matzah balls” and you think Jews. “Pure nostalgia for many Jews,” according to Like spaghetti for Italians or rice and beans for Latinos.

If chicken soup is our ultimate healthful, comfort food, the public face of Jewish cooking, matzah balls, dumplings with no filling, give “Jewish penicillin” a Jewish ta’am. Chicken soup without matzah balls?

That’s Batman without Robin, rock without roll.

Chicken soup sans matzah balls is just hot water.

What’s a Jewish deli without matzah balls?

And matzah balls are matzah 2.1.

Matzah by itself has little taste. But ground into matzah meal and shaped into balls with a little spice added, it absorbs the flavor of the liquid — usually chicken soup — in which it seeps. Like Jews who absorb the best of the cultures in which they live. And who affect their surrounding society — “matzo balls simmered in stock will make your chicken soup cloudy,” observes Yamit Behar Wood, Israeli-American food and travel writer.

Matzah and the seder’s Four Cups of Wine, are, of course, the pre-eminent religious symbols of the Festival of Freedom, but matzah balls are the culinary, gastronomic symbol. “Spiritually . . . maybe even metaphysically, they may be the most necessary part of the Passover meal,” food editor Helen Rosner wrote in the New Yorker.

Just like Pesach’s theme of freedom and liberation has been adopted by cultures outside of the Jewish community, particularly African Americans descended from generations of slaves, kneidlach have become a universal symbol of Jewish cuisine culture. Secular Jews — and some non-Jews — like matzah balls.

If to some folks we are the People of the Book, to others, more culturally oriented, we are the people of the matzah ball.

Within the Jewish community, this takes on a particular resonance.

The Fifth Question recited at the seder, I tell the participants at the seders I lead each year, is not “When will we eat?” but “Do you prefer hard or soft matzah balls?”

Floaters or sinkers? (The same choice for a fisherman’s bait.)

One’s preference in kneidlach is a tacit sign of one’s personality.

Me? I’m a registered independent. I can take my matzah balls hard or soft. As long as the taste is good.
Jewish culture offers an almost infinite variety of food choices. Why have matzah balls assumed such a prominent place?

Because they are ubiquitous.

Because they are hands on.

Because they are relatively easy to make.

Because they require few ingredients.

Because their preparation is a statement of one’s individuality.

You like floaters? Feh!

You like floaters? Harrumph!

There’s no right or wrong answer. Either type is intrinsically Jewish.

Sure, kreplach, dough wrapped around chopped meat, also go great in chicken soup, but they’re just dumplings. They’re a part of Judaism.

To many connoisseurs, matzah balls are Judaism.

Matzah represents slavery — the food the Hebrew slaves were fed in ancient Egypt, as well as what they ate on their way out of the land of servitude, the bread not having time to rise; matzah balls are pure freedom, unadulterated hedonism. When we eat matzah, we recall our communal past in servitude; when we eat matzah balls, we remember our parents’ and grandparents’ seder table. Matzah is collective; matzah balls, individual.

Kreplach, while yummy, lack this symbolism.

Lots of foods are unique to the Jewish community — think gefilte fish or bagels or knishes — while some are variations on items made or adapted by many ethnic groups, but matzah balls are arguably intrinsically linked to Jewish tradition.

Their roots are in 19th century Germany: Knödel, from the verb “to knot.” A dumpling fashioned from matzah crumbs instead of bread. Kneidel in Yiddish. Or Knaidel. Or Knaydel. Plural: kneidlach.

When Jews moved to Poland, they called the stuff knoedela. In the US, the home of many transplanted Jews, in the 1930s, Manischewitz introduced boxes of matzah ball mix, easing the cooking process. Even a novice could make passable kneidlach.

Sephardic Jews have their own variants of matzah ball soup, some incorporating walnuts, but it is traditionally associated with Ashkenazic culture. Now you can find recipes for whole wheat matzah balls (definitely sinkers!), breadfruit matzah balls (popular in Barbados), and jalapeno cheese matzah balls (obviously not to be made in chicken soup).

How far have matzah balls bounced into US popular culture, beyond the Jewish community? Pretty far.

Guinness World Records have a category for largest matzah ball (267 lbs. created by Noah’s Ark Original Deli). There’s a matzah ball eating contest (the record is 78 in eight minutes, set by competitive eater Joey Chestnut).

Food maven Martha Stewart — no Member of the Tribe, she — has posted several recipes for them on her website. Matzah balls have become a question on “Jeopardy!”; two, in fact (“How about a bowl of chicken soup with these dumplings, so light & fluffy, also called kneidlach.” “These round dumplings used in Jewish cooking are also known as kneidlach.”)

What’s more American than the World Series? Before the Houston Astros won the baseball championship, the city’s Jewish Herald-Voice newspaper reported that manager Dusty Baker joined Alex Bregman, the team’s Jewish star, break the Yom Kippur Fast at the Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen. The story’s headline: “Astros get matzah ball soup boost for playoffs.” Note, not chicken soup, but matzah ball soup.

Ten years ago knaidel was the winning word in the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee. Won by a 13-year-old whiz from an Indian-American family. (Who determined that the word’s correct English spelling is knaidel? Maybe those judges can come up with a uniform spelling for Chanukah. Or, for that matter, for matzah/matzo/etc.)

No matter how you spell them, matzah balls have come to be identified with the Jews and Judaism, beyond Pesach.

Whether they sink or float depends on how much water or seltzer or fat or oil a recipe calls for. It’s literally a matter of the cook’s taste.

It’s a palette for the palate, a source of family memories.

During my first visit to Israel several years ago, I came down with a cold. On a downtown street I found an old-style Jewish delicatessen. I sat down, and before I could order anything, the waitress heard my raspy voice and brought out a bowl of steaming chicken soup. Complete with matzah balls.

Before she was a restaurant employee, she was a Jewish mother. (Maybe a grandmother.) And a Jewish mother gives someone sick some matzah ball soup.

I felt better immediately. And I had a great memory of one Jew caring for someone she had just met through a medicinal food.

Which brings me back to the Battling Bubbes. They are both long gone now, and never had the chance to serve me their versions of matzah balls.

I’m sure they were both delicious.

How would I compare their kneidlach, if called to rank them?

Again, I’d pull out my Mom card.

My mother, of course, made the best matzah balls.

Hers were floaters.

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IJN Contributing Writer

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