I have to say…I love Passover. I may be a horrible Jew who blogs about bagels during a holiday that restricts your leavened bread intake, and who doesn’t even post a Passover blog until after Passover, but it’s true. Whether it’s the story of Moses freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt, or the delicious meal my mom always makes, I have always loved this holiday. Now, the one thing about Passover is this food restriction. For eight days, you can’t eat all the wonderful flour products that you normally enjoy, but you can have matzo. Many people, especially non-Jews, are horrified by this flat, simple, dry cracker, and rightfully so. There is very little that is redeeming about matzo (flavor-wise, that is)…except that it can be transformed into matzo pizza.
I’ve already argued why pizza should be considered relevant for a sandwich blog, so we don’t need to talk about that. But matzo has a ton of cultural and religious significance, so let’s learn about that!
Passover is our starting point: I’m sure most people are familiar with the story of the jews being enslaved in Egypt, Moses and the burning bush, and the ten plagues. But what’s relevant for us right now is what happened after the tenth plague. Throughout the course of the plagues, the Pharaoh had tried to compromise with the demand that all Jews be set free, and had even allowed them to go, but changed his mind immediately. Therefore, after the first born son of each Egyptian family had died, and the Pharaoh freed the Jews, they set off very quickly, since this precedent had already been set. So instead of slowly packing their belongings, and taking their time to get out of Egypt, the Jews threw everything on their backs, and booked it out of there! Of course, this meant that their bread, which usually was given time to rise, ended up in their belongings they were taking with them, and were baked as they went into crackers. These crackers, named matzo, became a symbol for salvation and freedom, as well as a reminder of our enslavement.
Now here’s the interesting thing. Before the tenth plague happens, God explains to Moses and Aaron what is about to happen, and tells them that they’re going to have to replicate this ceremony every year to remember how God passed over (get it???) the Jews’ first borns. Not only that, but he also explains the rules that prohibit eating unleavened bread for Passover for eight days. Then, Moses goes and tells the Jews this, and they follow this service while the first born sons of the Egyptians are being killed. But then…they rush out of Egypt so fast that they don’t have the time to let their dough rise! Now, many young Jews are taught that we eat matzo on Passover because of the matzo that was accidentally made as we hurried out of Egypt, but actually, we were told to eat matzo for this new holiday called Passover before any of it even happened. Talk about a miracle.
Let’s fast forward a bit. I could talk about the kinds of matzo, that is, the difference between the matzo us Reform Jews eat and the serious matzo, shmurah or guarded matzo, that Orthodox Jews eat, which is made from grain that has been watched over from the time of harvest to make sure it hasn’t fermented at all, and therefore risen. I could also talk about the first matzo factory which opened in Cincinnati in 1888. I could even talk about the fact that Passover is such an important holiday, and matzo its most important symbol, that the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder that definitely featured matzo. But really, I just want to talk about matzo pizza.
Growing up, Passover presented a bit of an emotional challenge: while I loved the holiday and the food, I did not love only eating matzo. Never was I forced to keep Passover kosher and abstain from leavened foods, but I always felt like if I loved the holiday so much, I should go all the way. The only thing that allowed me to ever refrain from eating bread was matzo pizza. I’m pretty sure my brother and I made it multiple times a day, and I’m also fairly certain it was one of the first things I cooked on my own. As a person who loves New York pizza in all its thin-crust glory, making matzo pizza felt like I was beating the system. During the week of Passover, I usually ate all my sandwiches on matzo, and enjoyed it, but there was something about the pizza that really made me love Passover even more.
The pictures above are from Fresh Brothers, a southern California pizza chain. They (brilliantly, I might add) decided three years ago to make matzo pizza for all the suffering Jews of the Los Angeles area. My mom and I decided that we needed to check this out, so met one day for lunch, and let me tell you…it was awesome. Of course, nothing beats sharing a matzo pizza with your little brother right out of the oven when you’re just old enough to cook for yourself, but having a pizza shop make it, was a game changer. The veggie pizza was enough to make me wish it was always Passover. And to make me wish I had thought of it.
Alright, so I know it’s a bit weird to blog about one of Judaism’s most famous leavened breads during Passover (which, for all the non-jews out there, is a holiday where you abstain from leavened bread), but I’m not the best Jew, so this isn’t entirely out of character.
There are a few origin stories for the bagel. One, a myth that has since been debunked, tells the tale of a baker in Vienna in 1683, who created a bread shaped like a stirrup, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland, who prevented the Turks from taking over the city. This story even claims that the word bagel comes from the German word for stirrup, bugel. Though this story held sway for many years, we now know that it is totally false, since the Yiddish word beygl can be found in a 1610 document of rules for a Jewish community in Krakow. The rules state that bagels were to be given to women in childbirth as a gift. It’s believed that the bagel actually originated in South Germany, where it was named beugel, or bracelet. It then moved into Poland, where, some sources say, it was used as an alternative to the obwarzanek, a very similar bread, that was associated with Lent. Whether or not this is true, the bagel has quite a history in Poland. In the shtetls, hawkers sold bagels out of baskets or on long sticks, and were required to have a license. Even the illegal selling of bagels occurred, mostly by children with widowed mothers, though if they were caught, the police would often beat them and take away their goods.
However the bagel originated, with the diaspora of the Jews, it spread to Western Europe and the east coast of America, where it found a stronghold. Many Jews found employment selling bagels in their new cities. These days, the bagel is one of the more well known Jewish foods, and is intensely associated with New York. In fact, New Yorkers claim that they actually make the very best bagels, thanks to the high quality of the water. They even call their plain bagels “water bagels.” Another variety of bagels is the Montreal bagel, which is made with malt and is blanched in water with honey.
Bagels, in addition to being a famed Jew-food, also hold a lot of significance in Jewish culture. The shape of bagels symbolizes the circle of life; the loop of a bagel has no beginning and no end. Even more, they were considered to be a good luck token and it was thought they could fend off the evil eye. For this reason, it has held meaning in ceremonies that are life cycle events, like circumcisions, during childbirth (as mentioned above), and funerals. And as much of Jewish humor revolves around food, you can bet there are bagel jokes…namely “a bagel is a donut with rigor mortis.”
But really, while all of this bagel history is interesting, what is more interesting is how delicious they are. Bagels are made from an enriched dough with flour, water and yeast, though these days many people add eggs as well. The dough is then rolled out and shaped into the familiar rings, and are left to rise briefly. In order to get the fantastic crusty outside with the delightfully chewy center, the dough rings are blanched quickly in boiling water, and, after being drained, are then baked to bagel-y perfection. Of course, bagels don’t retain their freshness for very long, which is where that rigor mortis joke comes in!
But what really makes bagels so great are their ability to make delicious sandwiches. While much of bagel cuisine revolves around cream cheese and smoked salmon, the bagel is truly a versatile bread. Really, you could throw anything between a halved bagel, and chances are, it’d be awesome. Even better, is that the bagel is a very sturdy bread, so you can easily make open face sandwiches! Of the photos above, the sandwich ones are from Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City, which was around the corner from where my brother used to live, and was a place that necessitated at least two visits per trip to New York. The first open face bagel is a homemade sandwich, with lox from Zabar’s, and the second two are from The Wood in Los Angeles, a cute restaurant, and this, in my opinion, is the star of their menu.
But however you eat your bagel, (or for that matter, whether you’re a Jew or not!), bagels are definitely a part of both the sandwich and the breakfast culture of America. You can get a bagel with cream cheese at almost any grab and go breakfast place, and even many lunch places: Dunkin Donuts will put any of their sandwiches on a bagel for you. And these days, you can get just about any flavor of bagel you want, from plain to blueberry, to pumpernickel. Which really just gives you more options for your sandwiches.
As soon as I tried onigiri for the first time, I knew I had to eventually post something about it on Anatomy of a Sandwich. I had thought that, like many other posts I’ve done, I’d have to spend most of my time justifying how onigiri fit into a sandwich blog. But then I opened up a book by Shizuo Tsuji called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. This book is widely considered to be the first translation of Japanese cuisine into Western understanding, not to mention the foremost encyclopedia on traditional Japanese foods. So needless to say, I was thrilled to find this sentence leading the description of onigiri: “Japan’s traditional sandwich equivalent.”
This means, fortunately, that instead of validating onigiri’s inclusion here, I get to talk about the fun stuff!!!
Onigiri, also called omusubi, are delicious balls of rice stuffed with vegetable, meat, or seafood fillings, then wrapped in seaweed (called nori). Though the word “onigiri” has the same root as “nigiri”, a form of sushi, rice balls actually fall into a different category of Japanese cuisine. The relation here has to do with the etymology of “nigiri”, which means “clenched” or “gripped”. If you’ve ever seen a sushi chef make nigiri, then you know what I’m talking about. Onigiri are also clenched, as the rice must be pressed hard enough to stick together, without squishing the rice grains, which makes them harden. In fact, it is said that, since cooking was traditionally done by women, the clenching of onigiri was a sign of a mother’s love gripping the rice together. Onigiri are usually triangular in shape, but can also be tubular or round.
On the other hand, there is a very big difference between nigiri and onigiri: the rice. While sushi rice is made with vinegar and sugar, onigiri rice is simply steamed. Furthermore, when making nigiri, you simply wet your hands so the rice sticks together, but not to your hands. With onigiri, wetting your hands is followed by salting your hands, so that as you press the ball together, you are also seasoning it. The reason behind this actually has to do with the original reason each dish was created. Sushi was created as a way to preserve fish: the fish was put between layers of this vinegared rice in order to preserve the fish. Alternatively, onigiri is salted because it originated as a method to preserve rice, not the filling inside. To this end, traditional fillings for onigiri are usually preserved in and of themselves, like umeboshi (pickled plum), salted salmon, and tarako (salted cod roe). Onigiri is also on the larger side, meant to be handheld, you know, like a sandwich!!! Furthermore, onigiri is often thought to be Japan’s oldest food, possibly originating before the widespread use of chopsticks, since it takes rice, a difficult food to eat with your hands, and makes it more accessible. Archaeologists have even found a lump of carbonized rice from around 300 BC that showed evidence of being held by human hands!
Today, onigiri holds a very similar place in Japanese cuisine as sandwiches do in Western cuisine. Found everywhere from onigiri shops to gas stations and convenience stores, modern technology has had a large part in making onigiri as widespread as it is. While traditionally, the emotional associations and precision needed to make onigiri made it impossible to mass produce, these days we’ve figured out how to have machines grip the rice properly, stuff the ball with filling, and package the ball with nori in a way that prevents the seaweed from going soggy. It is a truly portable meal that is eaten in the same context as sandwiches, and is considered one of the best platforms for highlighting local flavors and trends. They are also used to explore other cuisines, as now you can find the traditionally English filling of tuna mayo, or even Italian-style, with tomato sauce and cheese. In LA, we have two great onigiri spots: Sunny Blue (in Santa Monica, with a new location in Culver City) and Kawaba Rice Ball in Hollywood. Both offer a great combination of traditional and modern fillings, as you can see in the photos. And both are unbelievably delicious and reasonably priced, so are great for a snack or a full meal, which means if you pass one of these places, you have no excuse not to go!
Well, it’s been quite a hiatus, but I’m back, and starting up again with one of my favorite sandwiches…the lobster roll.
Let’s begin with a bit of lobster history! There are actually quite a few species of lobster, but culinarily speaking, there are two that really matter. Lobsters are actually found all over the world, but the two we eat most are from each side of the Atlantic Ocean: the American lobster, and the European lobster. In fact, lobsters have been a part of the human diet as far back as the Greeks and Romans! For our purposes, let’s stick with the lobster we all know and love, from the westside of the Atlantic.
When the Americas began to be populated, lobsters were overwhelmingly plentiful, and not considered a delicacy. As it became a part of our diet, it was actually seen as the opposite: only the poor, prisoners, and indentured servants ate lobster…and they weren’t happy about it! But by the mid 1800s, eaters in Boston and New York had begun to pick up on the deliciousness, and technology advanced to a point where lobsters could be fished more easily for mass consumption.
The problem is, lobsters inherently lend themselves to being a luxury. They live alone, on the sea bed, in rocky outcrops, and reproduce very slowly….it can take up to two years to produce fertilized eggs, and then another six to eight years for the lobsters to become large enough to legally fish. Furthermore, lobsters are caught in traps, not with huge nets, and have been known to engage in cannibalism when in captivity. So in terms of price, female lobsters are the way to go…not only are they generally bigger, but the eggs, or coral, can also be used in sauces, and many gourmands believe that they taste better anyway.
In America, Maine is known for their lobster, and lobster is associated more than anything else with Maine. And it’s true, a lot of lobster comes from Maine. But actually, there’s a whole lot more in Canada, Maine just has a better PR company.
But let’s move on to lobster rolls. Lobster rolls come in two forms: hot and cold. The original lobster roll, unsurprisingly, comes from Maine, and is cold. The Maine version usually has a bit of mayo and some seasoning tossed with the lobster meat. Elsewhere in New England, the meat is usually mixed with mayo, celery, and a bit of seasoning…it’s actually a bit similar to a tuna salad, just overwhelmingly better (because it’s lobster). The hot lobster roll is credited to Harry Perry of Milford, CT, and is a simpler affair: hot chunks of lobster meat, drenched in drawn butter. But where the hot and cold join in the Venn diagram of lobster rolls is the bread: a toasted hot dog bun (or similar shape) cut down from the top instead of horizontally. I think the wonderfulness that is the lobster roll is best summed up by Susan Russo in her book The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches: “it’s ironic that lobster, one of the world’s most luxurious foods, is also the featured ingredient in this, one of New England’s least pretentious sandwiches.”
I think anyone who has had a lobster roll in New England can agree. The photos above are from Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in New London, CT, where I went to college. The afternoons I spent there, eating lobster rolls (always hot of course…I may be a sucker for mayo, but there’s nothing better than hot lobster and drawn butter), are recalled with casual vibes and feelings of relaxation, not of white tablecloths and fine wines. It was about sitting outside at wooden picnic benches with friends and a cold beer, watching the boats come in and out of the harbor, chowing down on delicious food.