What We Talk About When We Talk About Matzo Balls

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My mother had been dead not quite twenty-three months when I was told I would not be making the matzo ball soup. I can’t quite remember what I said next, but I remember the feeling clearly, viscerally: like lead in the gut, a slight dizziness; a fuzziness around the edges of my brain.

It is true that the world was not going to end if I didn’t make the matzo balls for the Seder. But my mother had made the traditional Passover dumplings for decades before she died, for this very same loud, chaotic family Seder I’d been going to since I before I could remember. And the Seder before she’d died was the first year in memory she hadn’t made them; she’d been too tired, too sick. So she’d passed her giant soup pots to me, and asked me to make them. And I had. They were, by all accounts, delicious.

The following year I was undone by grief and whole-wheat matzo meal. I brought bad matzo balls to the family Seder, and thereby lost my right to make them again.

Every website with a hint of Judaism to it will tell you the history of the dry and humble Passover cracker, matzo. The youngest Seder-goer can recite the story of Jews fleeing ancient Egypt without the time to let the bread rise, resulting in the weeklong prohibition against eating leavened breads every spring. Since then, rabbis and Jewish matriarchs the world over have passed down the rules and recipes for matzo.

But the history of matzo balls, those little round dumplings that go with chicken soup the way mac goes with cheese, is not so clear. The dumplings seem to have made it into the Ashkenazi culinary repertoire from close association with Eastern European soup dumplings, which were adapted to the particular needs of Jews—schmaltz instead of butter to keep it kosher, matzo meal instead of wheat flour to keep it kosher for Passover. But there is no lore, no biblical passages, no Talmudic haggling to explain the history and meaning of the humble knaidlach. What we talk about when we talk about matzo balls comes from personal and familial taste, embodied in the culinary debates about the best techniques (floaters versus sinkers; schmaltz versu olive oil; to seltzer or not to seltzer). The history of matzo balls we make ourselves, one by one, in our own families.

My family Seders are hosted each year in Northern California by my “second family” — my mother’s best friend (we’ll call her “Grace”), her husband and their four kids. Throughout the years, we’d all show up, rehearsing our familiar roles within the chaos — the patriarchs at one end trying in vain to bring the requisite order to lead us through the Haggadah; the mothers at the other end of the long table, giggling and gossiping. And us kids would sit in the middle, causing whatever age-appropriate trouble we could. And then, as the years passed, the four kids’ spouses joined us around the table, and then their kids. And my spouse and our daughter.

Passover was always about charting the streams and tributaries of our family history — who comes and who goes, who is at medical school in Tel Aviv this year, or has brought a new boyfriend or has changed her dietary habits. Passover isn’t a story told only in the Haggadah; it’s also in the arrangement of the tables, the foods that are dished onto our heirloom plates, the wine stains that splatter like Rorsarch tests on the Haggadahs and the tablecloth.

There have been shifts in the menu, too, over the decades, but there are things that were constant: the home-made gefilte fish; the turkey meatballs; the artichoke and carrot sticks and black olives that sat on the table, for nibbling on during our long trek through the Haggadah. And, of course, the matzo ball soup.

While there may not be a written history of the dumplings, every beloved matzo ball tells a story of its maker, and their parents, and their parents’ parents; a little edible history on a spoon. It is the Jew’s madeleine: memories of grandmothers and childhood flooding the senses, transporting one to Seders past, to traditions stretching back generations. And matzo balls carry traces of movements across continents, as Jews migrated from Poland or Germany to New York or Montreal and then to San Francisco or Seattle, adding ingredients like seltzer and a touch of ginger, or switching from schmaltz to organic, locally sourced olive oil. The tongue tastes all the love and trouble and change that travels down through time, that finds its substantiation in a morsel of dumpling scooped from its simple broth.

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles should not be accused of hyperbole: “The icon of Jewish pop culture, the staple of deli menus, the culinary gem of bubbies worldwide, Matzo ball soup is the unofficial symbol of Jewish cuisine, the soup of the one God.” The Carnegie Deli might as well be a Greek diner without matzo ball soup. Passover would not be Passover without matzo ball soup.

As I soon discovered after my mother’s death, to serve someone a bad matzo ball is a terrible affront, an unforgivable faux pas, an insult to your hosts and your ancestors. It changes your status in the family.

Since I could remember, my mother had always made the matzo ball soup. Every year, she would fuss over her giant pots as the house filled with warmth and the scents of comfort. The soup pots were huge because the table was full: never less than twenty people, sometimes edging dangerously close to thirty.

And then people started passing away. First one of the patriarchs, who had gathered around the dads’ end of the room, the father of three kids who’d join us around the table. Then the wife, their mother. Then my own father.

This sense of subtraction was part of my desire to have a child. The image in my head was of the Passover table, of all the faces that were no longer there. “It is time for some addition,” I told my husband, told myself. Our daughter was born on Passover, as my family gathered around the Seder table, waiting for our call. “She made it through the narrow passage!” my cousin declared. My mother died three years later, two and a half weeks after my daughter’s third birthday, 14 days after the close of Passover. Addition; subtraction.

The Seder before my mother died, she asked me to make the matzo balls. I drove down to her place to get the two enormous soup pots. She had moved here not long after my father died — only the second place she had ever lived since she and my father were married in 1969. It was in an “independent living facility,” a few miles from the home I grew up in.

When I got there, she pointed into the kitchen, gesturing for me to get the pots, while she sat on a dining room chair. She was too tired to stand for long; her dialysis had been moved up to three times a week, and she found that she couldn’t do much else than sleep these days. Not quite 69 years old, she had the energy of someone twenty years older. Her body softened and sagged, seeming to shrink into itself, her hair a dull grey, limp against her skull. My mother, who hated to not be busy; who charged through life with certainty and determination; who got things done. Now her exhaustion was palpable, as much a presence as she was.

My mother had always been a big woman — large in stature, large in opinions, large in voice. She was a juggernaut when she got an idea in her head, especially when it pertained to someone else’s life and what they should do with it. As a small child, I knew my best bet was to remain quiet and go along with her plans. But when I hit about 15, things changed. Having been, previously, an obedient daughter, worrying about crossing the tremendous force living in the same house, I went the other way. I dyed my hair black, cut school, ran away from home. I told my mother to Fuck Off and stayed out past curfew, got arrested for shoplifting, hung out with a bad crowd. We spent a lot of years digging our trenches and lobbing our grenades, my mother and I.

By the time my father died, when I was in my early-thirties, and then my mother got sick and then sicker — chronic kidney failure, Addison’s disease, lymphoma, kidney cancer — we had come to a truce. She still made me crazy, and she still didn’t understand a lot of what I did or why I did it, but the love was on the surface. We had found ways to forgive each other.

When she asked me to make the matzo ball soup, it was a sign of trust and love and respect. She would not have asked anyone else, only me, her prodigal daughter. When she gave me those enormous pots, I knew it was up to me to fill them. I knew that I could.

There are many techniques matzo ball aficionados have insisted upon throughout the years, in order to make the perfect matzo ball: beat the egg whites separately, freeze the dumplings after cooking, use a white enameled pot to make the matzo balls whiter. My mother, as it turns out, relied on the recipe from the Manischiewitz box. “But remember,” she told me, “you can’t lift the pot lid while the matzo balls are cooking.” It’s the one instruction she gave me, but she must have felt it would be enough: She imparted it with all the weight and import of a vital family secret.

That year, I made the matzo ball soup. I had done well: Enormous, fluffy balls floated in a rich chicken broth — they were eagerly eaten and much praised, even by my mother, who sat, exhausted, in her usual spot, for what would be her last Seder.

The following year, I had been stumbling through the first signs of spring, the impending season of mourning, a whole litany of firsts without my mother. Within the span of a month it would go like this: Passover (no mom), my daughter’s birthday (no mom), my birthday (no mom), my parent’s anniversary (no mom — or dad), my mother’s yahrzeit (no mom, but for the plaque that marked her death), Mother’s Day (no mom).

I staggered through my days, trying to figure out how I was going to negotiate this new state of things, this new, motherless state of things. I was trying to get done the things that needed to get done, but I was not doing them well. In my preparations for Passover, I had made it to the grocery store late, and the only Matzo meal they had left was whole-wheat. I knew it couldn’t possibly be good, but I stood in front of the display with no better ideas. So I bought it. Four or five or six boxes of it, for all those matzo balls I had to make.

That Seder, my matzo balls were bad. I knew they were bad. They were hard, horrible whole-wheat lumps that sat insolently in the delicate gold-rimmed soup bowls. I couldn’t quite look at them, even as I helped deliver them to the table. Of course I couldn’t look at them — they were too close to my heart, to the press of sadness and heaviness and loss I was feeling, the lack of pleasure and lightness I was finding, at the time, in the world. Like golf ball sized hunks of clay that may as well have been the lump in my chest.

Apparently, Louis B. Mayer insisted that matzo ball soup be served every day in the private dining room at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer commissary, made according to his own mother’s recipe. If his taste buds told him the chicken wasn’t freshly killed, he’d send it back. He was not a forgiving person. Neither, it turns out, was Grace.

We never discussed the whole-wheat matzo ball fiasco, Grace and I. She just told me her cousin, newly transplanted from Texas, would be making them the following year, for the second Seder my mother would not be attending.

This was when the earth dropped out from beneath my feet. It was like losing my mother all over again. Making the matzo balls was carrying on the tradition she had imparted to me; it was keeping her alive. But it was also accepting her death, taking on the duty of filling those soup pots myself, just as my mother had asked me to. It was proof that I could carry on.

Traditions only continue when one generation picks up where the previous one leaves off. Children become parents and parents become grandparents, and the traditions are handed down as each steps into his or her new role. Making the matzo balls was, to me, proof that I could accept adulthood, as I watched my own daughter and her adopted cousins noisily populate the children’s section of the table, causing their own happy chaos, setting the stage for the Seders of future decades.

Making the matzo balls for my family was proof that my mother hadn’t left me unprepared to deal with the world, and my new place in it, without her. And now I was told I couldn’t do it.

This story should have a happy ending, a moral; a redemptive moment. But so far it doesn’t. Two years after being denied matzo ball duty, I fought hard to get my job back, confronting Grace — my second mother — and demanding my matzo ball-making place in the family again.

That year, after that battle, I threw out 100 matzo balls I judged inferior, making a second batch, this time using seltzer and boiling them longer, in the hopes that they would be better, lighter, more acceptable. I couldn’t tell if they were. I think everyone gobbled them up eagerly, but I’m not sure. I had lost all perspective. What had been a task of love and nourishment had become one of anxiety, cowled in the specter of failure.

Last year, I pulled a Bartleby the Scrivener: I would prefer not to make them, I said. The anxiety that had replaced the pleasure of making them was too much. And so I declined the duty, the privilege I had fought so hard to win back. Grace made them that year; she took my mother’s place. I still haven’t decided what I will do this coming year, what choice I can make that will encompass everything I want to say with my matzo balls: love, acceptance, forgiveness.

I still look for ways to honor my mother’s presence without getting mired in grieving her loss. I delight in my own family, in my daughter getting older, becoming more and more herself. I think, maybe, this year, I’ll ask her to make the matzo balls with me.

Jakki Spicer is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Matzo Balls

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