Susan Weingarten is an archaeologist and historian, and also the world’s leading expert on charoset.
In the first-ever book on the symbolic relish, “Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History” (Toby Press), she traces the mystery of its origins, its development, and its many cultural variations. The book will satisfy serious readers with its depth and insight, inspire serious cooks with recipes from around the world, and provide all seder participants with much to talk about.
As Weingarten explains, charoset has not always been sweet; sometimes it has been sweet-and-sour, and sometimes just sour. It has been made with fruit and dried fruit, nuts, spices, vinegar, and wine, among other ingredients, and even with grit, made to resemble the mud or clay used to make bricks by the Israelites as slaves as Egypt. She explains that it has always been a food of ordinary people.
Weingarten, who was born in London, moved to Israel in 1973 and now lives in Jerusalem. She opens the book with a quote from Marcel Proust, for whom food famously conjured memory: “The smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us …” As she writes in her own words, charoset, from its earliest appearances, “was meant to inscribe and incorporate Jewish memories of the slavery in Egypt.”
In a telephone interview, Weingarten points out that unlike the other symbolic Passover foods, charoset “has always been something of a mystery.” The first known reference to charoset is in the Mishna, but with few details of its makeup or taste.
Based on extensive research, she theorizes that doctors in ancient times thought that the bitter herbs were not healthy, and to counteract any harm, they were dipped into something. Charoset may have been the Hebrew name of a Greco-Roman food then in common use, called embamma.
At the beginning of the third century, charoset was already being used at the seder, and a few centuries later, rabbis in the Land of Israel and Babylonia were discussing and debating how to make it and what it symbolized. The Tosafists, rabbinic commentators, introduced the notion that ingredients for charoset should be the fruits mentioned in the Song of Songs.
Maimonides offered this description in the Mishneh Torah: “You take dates or dried figs, or raisins or something similar, tread on them and put vinegar in them, and spice them with spice, as in clay mixed with straw, and bring it to the table on Passover eve.”
Weingarten also looks at kabbalists’ views on the mystical meanings of charoset, using puns and gematria to point toward redemption and the future coming of the Messiah. And she writes of the absence of charoset during the Shoah.
In an interview, she says she is most surprised by “the amazing continuity” of charoset, that we are still doing what was done in antiquity.
“A lot of the information about charoset was passed down by word of mouth. I really like that there is no one common ingredient common to all forms of charoset,” she says. Ingredients were likely based on what was available in the area.
“Haroset” features color reproductions from illuminated Haggadahs, and also contemporary photographs illustrating how to prepare the traditional Ashkenazi charoset. Her impressive range of sources include ancient texts and commentaries, scholarly research, oral histories, and works of “cookery” as well as literary works, including David Mamet’s story “Passover.”
While she has researched many versions of charoset, she will stick to her grandmother’s recipe at her family’s seder, as is her tradition, using a mortar and pestle to break up walnuts, and mixing them with apples, almonds, cinnamon powder, and sweet red wine. One year, she added too much wine so then quickly added some shredded coconut, and now that has become part of her tradition. Most of the recipes she includes don’t indicate quantities, as the people she interviewed work by sight and taste. She presents the charoset traditions of people from Uzbekistan (black raisins, almonds, red wine), Kurdistan (fresh dates, walnuts, cinnamon, wine), Tehran (walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, raisins, pomegranates, ginger wine), Iraq (dates, nuts), and New Zealand (apples, wine, cinnamon, hazelnuts), among others.
For Weingarten, food and memory are very closely connected. As she speaks, she sees the seder table of her childhood in an old Victorian house in the north of England, recalling the colors of the walls and her mother’s cooking.
“The way people relate to the past and to their past is extremely interesting,” she says.
Her next project: She’s working on the history of challah, and also researching “what the rabbis ate — food in Talmudic literature.”
SOPHIE MATSA’S BALKAN CHAROSET
¼ kilo (about 9 oz.) seedless white raisins
¼ kilo (about 9 oz.) walnuts
Juice of one orange
1 Tbsp. sweet wine
2 Tbsp. of matzah meal
(Optional: bananas, dates)
The raisins are soaked for several hours, then ground with the rest of the ingredients.
Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.