Tonight many families (including the Obamas) host the Seder, the ritual meal celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover. Many Americans are unfamiliar with the customs of this dinner, such as recounting the Exodus story as told in the ancient Maxwell House Haggadah and the obligation to drink four glasses of wine (oh, the sacrifices …).
One seasonal custom puzzling to Gentiles is the appearance of canned Kosher cookies in American supermarkets. Many Jews are puzzled as well, since the cookies are macaroons made with coconut, chocolate, and other ingredients not prominent in the Old Testament.
Origins of the Passover macaroon are shrouded in mystery. Some believe the dense sweets derive from hastily assembled desserts prepared by the Israelites as they fled Egyptian bondage on a route devoid of donut shops. Others maintain that, in the nineteenth century, rabbinical scholars exploring caves near the Dead Sea uncovered a huge cache of ancient canisters of sweet, rock-hard, unleavened biscuits. Each spring these pious prospectors slapped “Kosher for Passover” labels on the cans and exported them to the growing Jewish community in the United States, and a tradition was born.
The source of these cookies was disguised to avoid legal and religious objections. Consumers were told the leathery pastries were baked by Jewish Scotsmen (“MacAroons”) or exiles (“maroons”), or that the cookies were imported from Cameroon and Morocco (in French, le Maroc).
There are competing origin theories, and Passover custom requires that all of them must be discussed and debated, especially if there is some wine left. Christianity, which adopted many Pascal customs, developed a sweet, sticky symbol analogous to macaroons and equally indigestible: Peeps.
“The 11th Plague? Why People Drink Sweet Wine on Passover,” Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic
Image (Moses and the Macaroons, after Rembrandt van Rijn) by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
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