Easter Eggs, Passover Eggs … and Claudia Roden

Happy Easter! A time for many things, not least the eating of Easter Eggs.

But Easter Eggs aren’t the only eggs to be eaten at this time of year. Coinciding with Easter is the Jewish festival of Passover. Eggs are part of that too. Rather than celebrating the rebirth of Christ (a classic case of ironic, neurotic guilt – if we allegedly killed him in the first place), Passover celebrates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. It lasts for eight days but the main event is a big dinner on the first night – which was on Monday – Seder Night. That’s when the eggs are eaten.

Seder Night is essentially a really big meal, with a long preamble, during which everybody joins in to tell the story of the Exodus. There are a great many symbolic moments during this preamble – the spilling of ten drops of wine as the ten plagues God brought upon the Egyptians are recounted; the repeated chorus of ‘Dayenu’ (‘it would have been enough’) as God’s actions when he got us out of Egypt are listed; and, of course, the food. There are matzos, a bit like crackers, eaten because no leavened bread is to be eaten over Passover – the Israelites fleeing from Egypt had to leave in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. But there are other symbolic foods too … including eggs. Passover eggs, however, rather than being delicious and chocolatey, usually accompanied by a chocolate bar or two, are just normal chicken eggs, served in salt water.

Eggs are one of those things that are symbolic pretty much everywhere. In fact I can’t think of anything more symbolic. Much more so than Geoff Dyer’s take on hats. Eggs mean birth, new life, and they’re perfect for Spring, when everything comes into bud, and baby animals are born etc. etc. My understanding of the Easter Egg symbolism – having done a spot of googling to check – is that they are an adaptation of the egg = new life symbol, and are meant to represent Christ’s resurrection, his new life.

At Seder Night, when eggs in salt water were duly distributed before we got to Granny’s chicken soup (perhaps answering the eternal ‘which came first?’ question), one of my cousins asked me why we always eat eggs in salt water at Passover. I told her what I thought was the correct answer – the eggs symbolise the birth of the nation of Israel and new hope, and the salt water represents the tears shed when we were suffering as slaves in Egypt.

I had a different question. Having almost given up on getting the chicken soup recipe out of my Granny (after years of trying) I asked her how to make haroset. Haroset is a yummy sweet fruity, nutty paste, which is another of the symbolic foods eaten on Passover. I always thought the reason behind it was something to do with balancing out the maror, the bitter herbs (usually horseradish for us), which are eaten to symbolise the bitterness of being slaves. A kind of – oh it was so awful and bitter and terrible (maror) but then God saved us so it became full of sweetness and hope (haroset). I suppose it’s a bit like my interpretation of eggs and salt water.

Nobody really knew how to make the haroset – buy it from Panzers (a Jewish deli) was Granny’s advice. Undeterred, when I got home that evening I looked it up in one of my favourite books, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

This book is completely wonderful. Not only does it tell you how to make absolutely any Jewish food you can imagine – including all the yummy Sephardic Middle-Eastern stuff – it is also a beautifully-written social history of Jewish food, full of interesting titbits. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Polish Jews had a taste for sweet foods, adding sugar to their pickled herring, whereas Lithuanian ones were particularly keen on peppery and sour foods, such as fermented pickled cabbage (yuk)? And there are some food-related jokes scattered through the pages, which always make me want to say ‘oy’. Here’s one:

A man orders a five-course meal at Soli’s. He stuffs himself, and everyone wonders how much else he can eat. When the bill comes, he says he has no money at all and can’t pay. Soli is furious: he wants to call the police. Then he says, ‘I will let you go if you do one thing – if you go tomorrow and do the same thing across the road at Sam’s Deli.’ The man replies, ‘I already ate there yesterday and they told me to come here today.

So, when I picked up this enormous wonderful book the other night, aware of the feast of brilliance laid out in the pages, it would have been a sin to go straight to the index to look up the recipe for haroset. Instead, I leafed through the book, glancing at page after page, until I happened to reach the section on Jewish festivals and found the entry for Passover. Here, clear, concise and elegant, was an explanation of the symbolism of all the Passover foods. And I was shocked to find that I’d been wrong about the egg in salt water.

According to Claudia Roden, the egg should be roasted, not hard-boiled. The roasted egg symbolises the sacrificial offering to God of a roasted animal, which apparently used to happen at festivals in biblical Jerusalem. The salt water isn’t supposed to accompany the egg, it’s supposed to go with the green vegetable (karpas). Although, at least I was right about the salt water symbolising the tears of the slaves.

All sorts of questions are thrown up by this discovery. Not least, how do you roast an egg?! (Boil it first, apparently.) But then, I suppose it’s not that surprising that I always assumed the egg was a symbol of new life rather than of an animal sacrifice. It seems to mean new life everywhere else. And eggs at our Seder Nights have never been roasted, and I doubt anyone would have hard-boiled an animal sacrifice …

But now I find myself in a quandary. What happens next year? Should we roast the eggs, following the gospel of Claudia Roden? Or should we stick to our own tradition of hard-boiling them and serving them in salt water? And what about the green vegetable? We normally pass around a few lettuce leaves extracted from an M&S bag of salad, but next year should they be dipped in salt water?

Judaism is a religion that’s full of traditions. That’s what I love about it. I love the apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (‘may your New Year be full of sweetness’), and I love Seder Night with all its fuss and symbolism, and I love the memories I have of all these festivals. Every Seder Night I remember my brother teaching me the Manish Tanah – the four questions that the youngest person present has to recite; I remember all of us running around the dining room year after year, excitedly hunting for the afikoman – a piece of matzos hidden by a grown-up earlier on; and I remember being a teenager and giggling hysterically with my cousins when we had to read out the bits about being in Egypt ‘in bondage’ or God using a ‘rod’. Gosh we were told off so many times.

And, part of that tradition, is being offered a hard-boiled egg in salt water just before Granny’s chicken soup is dished out. Every year some hands eagerly shoot up, while others politely decline, and then there is the inevitable discussion about whether egg in salt water is delicious or disgusting. It would be awful to lose this, just because the eggs are actually supposed to be roasted.

Perhaps it was like this when Easter Eggs started being yummy chocolate feasts rather than painted chicken eggs. Perhaps some people still think, ‘oh if only we still painted eggs rather than gorging on all this chocolate.’ But it seems unlikely; chocolate eggs are too delicious to regret the change in tradition. Sadly, I imagine that roasted eggs and hard-boiled eggs taste pretty similar.

I don’t know what to do about the egg situation. But I did, in the end, remember to look up how to make haroset. Again, I was surprised to find a new symbolism for it. The sweet paste isn’t just something to balance out the bitter herbs, maror, it is in fact supposed to symbolise the mortar that the Israelites made with Nile silt when building the Pyramids for the Pharaohs.

The really awful thing is – please all my Jewish friends don’t hate me for my ignorance – I didn’t even realise that the Israelites made the Pyramids. I always thought of the Pyramids as something that the Egyptians built. I hadn’t twigged that the Jews-as-slaves-in-Egypt period overlapped with the Pyramid-building period.

Perhaps I would have learnt all of this, and hence the egg dilemma would never have arisen, if I hadn’t been thrown out of Jewish Sunday school at a young age for repeatedly eating bacon-flavoured crisps. But, on a positive note, at least haroset looks pretty simple to make. All you need to do is grate apples, and mix them with chopped walnuts, cinnamon, sweet red wine and a little bit of sugar or honey to taste. No eggs at all.

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