A Culinary View of Purim
“In every province, and in every city, wherever the King’s command and his decree reached, the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a holiday…” (M’gillat Esther 8:17)
To a young Jewish child Purim is inextricably linked to costumes, merriment, being allowed to make noise in the sanctuary every time the “bad guy” Haman is mentioned, and those triangle cookies that are given out after the M’gillah reading. To an adult Purim, with all its frivolity, symbolizes survival. While in exile and during pogroms and wholesale acts of annihilation our people needed a story to cling to that would give them hope and a chance to revel in the Jewish people’s courage and success. So symbolic was this festival that many small Purims were celebrated throughout history after Jewish communities found themselves saved from disaster. And those triangular pastries anticipated by the children were only one of the confections to represent the hope and triumph of the Jewish people and eating them voraciously demonstrated our control over our enemies.
OBSERVING THE HOLIDAY
If recipes tell stories and stories transform into recipes then no Jewish holiday has more connection to the table than Purim. Of course we are instructed to observe the reading of the M’gillah and to obliterate Haman’s name when it is mentioned during the reading. We come dressed in costume to symbolize that we are different from what we appear (just as Esther concealed being a Jew). We even prepare foods like stuffed cabbage or Kreplach that conceal what’s inside or provide an unexpected filling for the unexpected turn of events that occurred in Shushan long ago. Besides the M’gillah reading, all other Purim traditions are centered on what we can imbibe. We send Shalach Manot, gifts of at least two types of food, drink or spice to friends. We are commanded to give charity to the poor (in food or money) and we are instructed to partake of an elaborate Seudah or feast. It is at this feast that the dictate to get drunk first arose. Although Jews’ association with wine was mostly ceremonial and temperance was always advised (historically Jews rarely cooked with wine), we are encouraged to drink just enough so that we can not easily distinguish between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai”. That’s a lot of liquor!
Often Haman’s body was fair game for culinary symbolism. Ashkenazic kitchens often baked Keylitsh, a large twisted Challah to represent the hanging of Haman on the gallows originally built for the Jews. Moroccan Jews made Boyoja Ungola Di-Purim, a spiced Challah with 2 hard boiled eggs embedded on top to represent Haman’s eyes. European children often ate gingerbread Haman and bit off its head in glee. In Italy Orecchi di Aman, strips of dough pinched together and fried in hot oil until they became golden and misshapen, represented Haman’s ugly ears which were gobbled up perhaps to represent not wanting to hear the evil doer’s name or maybe he just had ugly appendages? Greek Jews made Folorikos, a tasty confection that represented Haman’s feet and in pre-war Salonika Folares were the Purim specialty, figurines fashioned out of marzipan, that were prepared. However, the pastry most associated with Purim, at least in North America, is the Hamantashen, a close cousin to the Mohntashen.
Mohntashen, or Poppy seed pockets, were pastries eaten by the non-Jewish community of Eastern Europe that Jews adopted for Purim. Mohn sounded like Haman so the cookie became Hamantashen. The classic filling was the Mohn or poppy seeds but this correlated well to the story of Purim. Esther ate poppy seeds and other seeds when she was in the palace to hide the knowledge from the king that she was Jewish. Also, after the flood God promised that he would never destroy the Jews and would make their seeds spread over the world. As I often tell my students, “If you have ever dropped a teaspoon of poppy seeds on the kitchen counter you can understand why they are symbolic for spreading over vast swaths of land!” Prune filled Hamantashen; the other iconic filling for these pastries gets its origins in the mid 18th century. The story is told about a prune preserve (Poividl) merchant who was accused of poisoning a magistrate around the time of Purim. He was scheduled to be hung (sound familiar?) when, at the last minute, he was acquitted. The townspeople were so elated that they filled their Purim Hamantashen that year with prune preserves and referred to the holiday as Poividl Purim.
May our history of triumph over insurmountable odds and our culinary traditions bring joy and contentment into your homes this year and may you bake and share many good stories in your kitchen to share with your family and friends.
Eat in good Health!
Tina Wasserman is the author of Entrée to Judaism, a Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora published by the URJ Press. Tina is trained in Foods and Nutrition and has taught her love and understanding of cooking and Jewish culinary history to audiences in synagogues and Jewish organizations throughout North America and Europe. She is also the food columnist for Reform Judaism Magazineand serves on the URJ Camp Newman board in California. She lives in Dallas, Texas and is a member of Temple Emanu-El.
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