Consider that to celebrate our exodus from Egypt and mark our transition from slavery to freedom, we Jews turn to all manner of processed foods. Artificial colors, preservatives, and foods loaded with sugar and fat dominate the Passover food aisle, not to mention the fake foods, from imitation noodle products to boxed desserts that sit on grocery shelves for weeks without losing their “freshness.”
For a holiday whose spirituality centers on food, is this really what God and Torah want from us?
Shannon Sarna, editor of the Nosher and author of “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More,” asked herself that question the year she spent Pesach with observant friends. “They stocked up on all this crap processed food,” she said in a phone interview. “It left me with a huge stomachache. It was not OK.”
Her observance of the holiday now takes the opposite approach: “I cook everything,” she said. “It’s exhausting. But it’s infinitely better than a stomachache.”
Clinical nutritionist Yaffa Hollander of West Orange, a member of Cong. Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, looks to the seder plate and the ritual items arrayed on the table for clues to how we should be eating through the holiday.
“The seder plate is full of colorful fruits and vegetables, protein in the form of walnuts and egg,” she said, referring to the nuts of charoset and the roasted, hard-boiled egg. “Even the red wine (or grape juice) provides antioxidants … It’s all healthy for your body.”
She takes a “dayenu” approach to junk food during our Festival of Freedom. “It’s a good time to detox our diet,” she said. “We’re going into spring; we spring clean our homes. We can also spring clean our bodies.”
Because it’s just a week, she suggests taking “baby steps” toward a change. She advises focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables, soups, poultry, and whole grain matzah, and staying away from all the processed foods, packaged items, and those with artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners. She pointed out that the minerals we need can be found more readily in fresh foods. “The boxed and processed foods lose their valuable nutrients,” she said. She also emphasizes drinking water over caffeinated sodas, and suggested that water is particularly appropriate for Passover because of its rich religious symbolism, appearing often at critical moments in the Torah. Some even have the custom at the seder of pouring water into a cup for Miriam, in addition to the cup for Elijah filled with wine.
When it comes to traditional Passover substitutions, Sarna is unwavering in her objection. Those popular Passover “rolls”? Sarna wouldn’t partake once, let alone twice. “Uch, gross,” she said. “Just don’t eat bread. Deal with it.”
And as for desserts, she says to stick to meringues, cakes made with almond flour, baked goods naturally leavened with egg whites, whipped cream with berries, pudding, and flourless chocolate cake, or other dishes that don’t need unleavened alterations. “Why divert to that weird place — ‘Ooh I need kosher for Passover cupcakes.’— No, we don’t.”
Her approach to food during the Holiday of the Spring essentially boils down to this: If you wouldn’t eat it on all other nights, don’t make it for Passover.
Sarna sees a parallel on Passover to trendy diets like Whole 30 or the Paleo diet, which focus on animal protein and fresh produce while excluding all grains, dairy, soy, refined sugars, and processed ingredients. People who follow them are essentially eating kosher for Passover foods year-round, with extra restrictions. While Sarna herself doesn’t embrace the diets (she believes in the joy of gluten), she does like one result: They force followers to focus on healthy meal preparation and not rely on opening a can or heating up food from a box. That part of these diets “makes sense,” she said. “This is how we should be eating all year.”
Michele Retik, owner of the Squirrel & Bee Bakery and Café in Short Hills, does eat this way all year, and her shop is Paleo-friendly and certified kosher for Passover year-round by Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, where she is a member.
She’ll tell anyone who will listen about the health benefits, and how she cured her own ailments through a Paleo diet. Retik uses nut flours and honey in her creations, which sometimes include limited amounts of dairy and eggs, but never meat. “It is totally possible to eat healthier and be healthier and not be sick or treat yourself poorly on Passover,” she said.
Her kosher for Passover “breads” and “muffins” are a far cry from the strange Passover bread substitutes Sarna decries. Ditto her quiches. And fruit tarts. Try getting a table on “Waffle Sundays” at Squirrel & Bee during the rest of the year. When Retik says, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” she isn’t kidding, with healthy kosher for Passover offerings literally from soup to nuts.
Even before Retik embraced this diet (she previously owned Michelle’s Bakery & Cakery in Springfield, offering more traditional gluten-and-sugar-filled treats), she avoided the Passover aisle offerings. “I bought things sometimes to try, like the cake mixes, but they didn’t taste good, they weren’t healthy, and they weren’t appealing,” she said. So even then, like Sarna, she spent a lot more time in the kitchen during Passover.
And all that extra work? Sarna elevates the tedium to a spiritual level.
“We are forced to work harder for one week,” she said. “When we reflect on what our people have been through, that’s not a bad thing.”
If you are not so sure you need God to hear you cry out in suffering in your kitchen to understand that we were once slaves in Egypt, perhaps treats from the Squirrel & Bee can enable you to recline a bit sooner without giving up on healthy eating. Or maybe just try following the seder plate, as Hollander advises — stick to fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (that are kosher for Passover), and whole proteins. Not only will freedom taste like real food, but this year your gut might even join you in singing the Hallel praises at the end of the seder.