The food industry is failing us this Passover

It started with an ill-fated search for a seder plate.

When I got married, I used the opportunity to ask for a few nice bits of judaica, as one does, never mind that my husband is not Jewish (we also signed a ketubah at our wedding). Among these was a beautiful ceramic seder plate that arrived broken. In the midst of all the things going on around our wedding, we never got it replaced. This year, I’m hosting a seder, my mom is flying in from across the country, and I have no plate, so she offered to get me one if I pointed her in the right direction. For those who aren’t familiar, a seder plate is the center of the passover table. Passover is eight days, but we typically only celebrate with a meal -the seder- on the first two nights. Judaism uses a lot of symbolic, didactic objects, and the seder has a bunch. We have a special book that tells us how we’re supposed to have a seder (the haggadah), we have special food (matzah), as well as a special bag or plate to hold the matzah, and we have a special cup for someone who isn’t sitting at the table (Elijah). The seder plate is kind of a serving platter, but typically no one eats off of it. It holds bits of foods that are symbolic parts of the meal and tell pieces of the story of exodus, which Passover celebrates. In the past, I’ve either borrowed a plate from someone else (usually my mom), or I’ve just put out a bunch of little bowls.

If I’m going to have a dedicated plate, I want it to be interesting and beautiful – otherwise, I can just put out those little bowls again. I have something very specific in mind, which is never a good way to start shopping: modern, but not in a cold or angular way, just simplified from the really elaborate decorations that are common to a lot of traditional judaica, and if there are pomegranates involved, even better (I love pomegranates and they’re a common motif in Passover and Rosh Hashana decorations). So I went searching for a new seder plate.

I started with the shop for the Jewish Museum in New York, which is where I registered for the broken one. They tend to sell the right aesthetic that I’m looking for. Since I’ve been married, though, their prices have skyrocketed, and most of their plates are in the multiple hundreds of dollars. So then I looked on Etsy, where I found either knock-offs of the Jewish Museum’s offerings (with the image from the museum store, in classic fake internet product fashion), or plates that were lacking pretty typical elements of seder plates, like the names of the foods on each dish. Again, if I’m going to get a dedicated dish, it should be right, otherwise I can just bring out some little bowls.

Seder plates at the Jewish Museum shop.

I expanded my search, looking at online judaica stores. Most of the offerings there were the kind of opulent traditional designs in metal of my parents and grandparents or the very modern styles that became popular among Gen X Jews that I see as the tableware equivalent of brutalist architecture.

Brutalism, in a plate.

That’s when I thought to start looking at national housewares chains that often have holiday lines, like Williams Sonoma and Pottery Barn. Nothing. The same store that sells multiple different kinds of highly specific bunny-themed dishes doesn’t sell a single Passover-related item. That really struck me as odd. As small a minority as Jews are, we still have a lot of purchasing power. Even if it was online-exclusive content, why wouldn’t major chains sell this kind of holiday merchandise, which otherwise fits into their product model?

It’s not like companies don’t acknowledge Jewish holidays. Step into Michael’s in December and you’ll see an entire display of kitschy blue and white crap. Every year, my very well-meaning mother in law sends Hannukah gelt and dreidels and a random card with a joke about latkes alongside all the Christmas stuff. And I want to make it clear – I love these things and I love that she sends them. But it makes me sad that these little ephemera are all that are really on offer. I’m married to a Christian, I have beautiful nutcrackers and Christmas ornaments that make that holiday special. Why, in this capitalist society, can I make lasting memories with heirloom Christmas items, but not do the same for Jewish holidays, especially ones that really matter?

I wanted to think bigger about how companies in the broader food industry sell content for Jewish holidays. So I started looking at media organizations like Bon Appetit, Food52, and The Kitchn to see what they offer in terms of Passover recipes. Now, Passover should be a gold mine for these companies because it’s a meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving that’s meant to be a lavish feast. The only catch is the dietary restrictions for Passover – the obvious limitation that, traditionally, Jews don’t eat leavened bread products during the holiday, and that otherwise it would be in bad taste to completely disregard kosher laws (so no shellfish or pig products and no mixing of dairy and meat). But especially in a world that is making accommodations for, even fashionably obsessed with, gluten-free and vegan diets, that shouldn’t be an issue. And yet. Passover gets one or two features from each of these publications, and they are very safe, very traditional approaches to the meal. Brisket, with a side of roasted vegetables (never mind that the holiday is in the spring). Dessert is always flourless chocolate cake. No recommendations for mixed drinks (this is a holiday with heavy drinking built in!). No tips for prepping or table decorations. Certainly no guides for where to buy chic and modern tableware. But why?

Jewish food is even having a quiet moment right now. More cookbooks in recent years have focused on updated Jewish (usually Ashkenazi) cooking, like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking (2015) or Jake Cohen’s Jew-ish (2021). Even without a focus on specifically Jewish cuisine, Jews are occupying a broader cultural presence in the food world, with popular food writers like Molly Yeh, Melissa Clark, and superstar Yotam Ottolenghi (not to mention Ina Garten) occupying a space in the American food landscape that has long been dominated by WASPs. Clearly, Jews are not the only people consuming this content, so why doesn’t Jewish food, or a curiosity about Jewish holidays, have a bigger reach?

I thought about this especially the other day when I saw that food historian Michael Twitty was going to be giving a talk at Tulane about the black Jewish food tradition. Even though I’ve known about Twitty for years and seen him in documentaries like “High on the Hog” (excellent, by the way), I had never known that he was Jewish. And in an interview with The Advocate in 2021, Twitty explained why. His intersection of identities was deemed too confusing to the public by a publisher. He says

To her, being “openly” Jewish – and she was Jewish herself – was inviting distraction from me being a Black author writing what for her was a Black book.

My first thought on reading this story was that Jews can often be very unwelcoming in terms of who we consider Jewish. Take, for example, the status of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, who often face both outright prejudice and systemic discrimination. This stringency is often applied along racial lines, since Ashkenazi Jews in particular have a very specific idea of what Jews should look like. But that didn’t stop Twitty from finding appeal in Jewish culture and philosophy. He suggested to Hadassah Magazine in 2020 that he digested the Passover tradition through his grandmother, who was a domestic worker in Jewish household (doesn’t that just have all the layers in it?).

Twitty lays out the pieces for us to understand the place of Jewish culture in the corner of American media that is concerned with food. Jews themselves can be food authorities, the same way Black people can themselves be food authorities (and those who are both). But they have to seem American first. Twitty’s public appearances began with presentations on the American historical food tradition, through which he has educated the public about the complexity of African-American foodways. In the same way, celebrities like Ottolenghi and Garten rarely write about Jewish food or Jewish holidays. When these authors are presented with their Jewish identity their audience seems to shrink. But if Michael Twitty can celebrate Passover as a Christian boy vicariously through his grandmother, then the American public has the capacity to begin to appreciate Jewish holiday traditions.

The issue I see is the lack of a foothold. Modernized Jewish cookbooks are usually starting from a place of familiarity with what most American Jews grew up with. That version of Jewish food is lacking, both because it is the product of poverty in 19th century Eastern Europe, and because it must adhere to strict kosher laws and, importantly, signal that it adheres to those laws. If you have parve (non-dairy) kosher ice cream, it can’t be a delicious fruit sorbet or a custard made with coconut milk that behaves like dairy, because then you might worry that it’s not really obeying the law. It has to feel like you are giving something up by eating it. It has to seem not like ice cream. It isn’t really that hard to eat kosher (now), but Jewish food has historically built in the awareness that what you’re eating is lacking. That kind of cuisine is hard to celebrate. So, modernizing that cuisine has often been about finding and distilling the few things that people really like in that cooking, like matzo balls or macaroons – foods that your parents and grandparents made you as an expression of love in the midst of material limitations, not foods that stand as a reminder of sacrifice and suffering. But while mushroom matzo ball soup might sound like an upgrade to someone who is used to more pared-down fare, it’s not clear why someone who isn’t accustomed to eating a sponge made out of cracker crumbs and eggs would be more interested in it just because you added mushrooms. Jewish cooking hasn’t yet found a point of comparison to what Americans know that makes it appealing on its own.

The answer has often been for Jews to coopt Palestinian food, which, unlike Ashkenazi cooking, has the appeal of the Mediterranean diet, fresh vegetables, and lots of spices. But there’s so much to love about Ashknenazi food (and other Jewish food traditions that I know nothing about). In her 2021 book, The Arabesque Table, Palestinian author Reem Kassis argued that we should see Arab food as an endlessly adaptable fusion, already present in cuisines more familiar to Americans, and easily accessed because of that fact. What if we saw Ashkenazi food the same way? I keep thinking about how my parents make meatballs, basically as matzo balls with meat instead of matzo – a mixture of egg and wet bread or crumbs in the meat, and then the raw balls are simmered in tomato sauce, rather than baked or fried. Or kreplach, which are almost exactly the same as wontons? It’s not our job as members of a minority to make our traditions appeal to the dominant group, but if we did, maybe we could get more of the real representation we want.

Or maybe I’d just be able to buy an actually attractive seder plate.