This Passover, Peas on Earth

By Leonard Fein

Published April 14, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Until last Wednesday, I had no idea what “legumes” meant. Oh, I knew that legumes were an edible of some sort and not a French rock band (“Les Gumes” or some such). But coming on the word as I did only once a year, during the run-up to Passover, I knew legumes only as a Passover no-no, and since I already knew all the yes-yes edibles, there wasn’t really any need to inquire further.

Hence the shock, doubtless shared by some hundreds of thousands of New York Times readers, on learning in the Wednesday Dining In section not only what legumes are, but also that they no longer are forbidden. No siree, from now on you can abandon everything you were raised to believe, everything you knew to be true and pure — kosher l’Pesach, that is — and chomp away at matzo with, just to take one example, peanut butter.

(Can you imagine? Has anything drier than matzo and peanut butter ever been conceived, let alone served and consumed? It’s bad enough when the peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth. Now imagine that embedded in it are shards of matzo.)

But I digress. Let us return to legumes. It is time for us to clarify the matter by providing a concise definition: Wikipedia informs us that “A legume is a simple dry fruit which develops from a simple carpel and usually dehisces on two sides.”

Now that we have cleared that up, the rest should be relatively simple. Take, for example, the peanut. Now, it is well known that the peanut is not a nut. A peanut, in point of fact, is an indehiscent legume.

In the same way, peanut butter is not butter. In theory, therefore, you could infuse your brisket with peanut butter and not violate the laws of kashrut, although there might be other laws that you would thereby be violating (including, for example, if you are having guests, the laws of hospitality). And, obviously, you would need to start with a kosher brisket; infusing peanut butter into a treyf brisket does not make the brisket kosher, even though the peanut is an indehiscent legume.

Other well-known and highly regarded legumes include vetch, which is well known to farmers and highly regarded by their cows and other grazing animals; it is a forage legume, as are alfalfa and clover. (It is an urban legend that the endless debate over whether vetch merits a “K” for kosher may be the origin of the word “Kvetch,” originally K-vetch.) None of these typically has a prominent place at the Seder table, although times are plainly changing.

A panoply of paradigm-shifting Passover possibilities has now suddenly been opened. Some are preposterous, some are merely puzzling, but many are at least plausible and some are positively philosemitic — in effect, if not intent. Consider, above all, that legumes are pareve — that is, neither milk nor meat — and therefore can be served with whatever the meal. Fava beans, lentils, peas and beans can now legitimately supplant or even replace asparagus, cauliflower, asparagus, tomatoes and asparagus.

Aside from how this radical reinterpretation of the strictures regarding leavening — that is, use of an agent that causes batter or dough to rise — will affect the preparation of school lunches and family dinners during the eight days of the Passover holiday. Aside, as well, its impact on the kosher cookbook industry: Amazon lists 232 kosher cookbooks, and Google has 2,500,000 entries in the kosher cookbooks category. Aside from all that, the new development gives rise — if you will excuse that word — to the obvious question: How come? Why are all future Passovers different from all past Passovers?

The answer is, in fact, of little theological but of considerable sociological interest. We’ve all (well, not quite all) been aware that there are differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews when it comes to culinary habits and understandings. Sephardic Jews have all along considered rice, corn, beans and lentils as acceptable Passover foods; for Ashkenazim, they were as forbidden as a French toast (from challah, of course).

So what was the Israeli army, in which the laws of kashrut are observed, to do with regard to soldiers’ chow during the holiday? Different bans for different clans, rendering one army into two?

And what of the large and growing number of inter-ethnic families? One set of dishes for the bride, another for the groom? Absurd. Better to review the relationship of leavening and fermentation to a whole array of foods that until now have differentiated the two major groups, and devise an acceptable meeting ground.

And so it turns out to be; in the battle between fundamentalism and funda-lentilism, the pro-lentilists have won. As it happens, that is also a victory for the plain folk as distinguished from the elites. Lentils and their humble relatives are human forage foods, as it were. Simple, straightforward, abundantly available, food for the proletariat and not just for the plutocrats. Let all who are hungry enter and meet.

Thus is born a more inclusive peoplehood, Moroccans and Poles sitting side by side and sharing the same mujadrah (lentils and rice, sometimes thought to be Esau’s dish of lentils), room for the vegan as well as for the traditional carnivore, humus right up there with matzo brei.

But: If such encrusted barriers as we have long regarded as inviolate can now, with the stroke of a quill, be rendered into fuzzy memories of times that were, then what else may be thought possible? If we can now look forward, during Passover itself, to peas on earth, is freedom from all culinary constraint next?

No, that cannot be, nor should it. Legumes, yes; anarchy, no.

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