personal essay

Remembering My Late Father Through Passover, Matzo Brei, and Some Very Cheesy Puns

published Apr 18, 2022
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Credit: Bijou Karman

Back in the early 2010s, my dad used to ask friends and family if they’d ever heard of the Long Island Medium. (He was referring to Theresa Caputo who would, on national television, connect clients with loved ones who have passed.) Before anyone could answer, he’d rub his belly and say, “Well, I’m the New Jersey Large!” Why am I telling you this story? For starters, because it’s hilarious. Mostly, though, because I want you know how much my dad would appreciate earning the posthumous nickname, Matzo Man. Get it? Instead of Macho Man! (His sense of humor was clearly hereditary.)

My sweet and ridiculously funny father passed away suddenly at the beginning of the pandemic. Passover had just ended and because we were all still quarantining, I hadn’t made it home for the holiday. In fact, it had been way too many years since I had made it home for a Passover Seder. I missed being home for those special meals, though. I missed the way my dad would always help me cheat when it came time to “find” the afikomen. I missed standing at the sink, washing dishes with my dad after all our guests had left. (I’d wash, he’d dry — all while saying that the dishes would dry on their own if you just did nothing for long enough!) And I missed his famous fried matzo the next morning.

The man’s repertoire was limited when it came to cooking. He grilled the annual Thanksgiving turkey as well as hot dogs and burgers in the summer. He made onion soup. For himself, he’d make pasta shells stuffed with tuna fish (creatively named, Tuna Shells), which resulted in endless teasing from the rest of the family. He’d make pancakes in the shape of everyone’s initials when I had sleepovers with friends. And last but not least, he could do magical things with matzo — especially when it came to fried matzo.

Technically called matzo brei (pronounced mah-tzo-bry; rhymes with “fry”) in Yiddish, it’s a classic Passover dish for Jews of Eastern European or Russian descent. It’s not hard to make; it’s just unleavened bread (matzo) that’s been soaked and softened and then fried in butter. Of course, every family has its own way of making and eating the dish. Some families keep the matzo sheets whole, others break the sheets up into small pieces. Some families use egg matzo, some use regular, unsalted matzo. Some families soak the matzo in water, some only use eggs. And some families serve it with sweet or salty accouterments. (Think: sugar, jelly, applesauce, or sour cream.)

Even within my own family, we had different opinions of how it should be eaten. (My mom sprinkles hers with sugar, while the rest of us have always dunked our pieces into grape jelly. Never strawberry. Always grape. Always Welch’s.) But there was one thing we all agreed on: That my dad should be the one to make it.

I wanted what so many people want: to be able to remember a loved one through food.

The two-year anniversary of his passing happens to fall during Passover this year. While I wish it was something I could, uh, pass over, I decided to embrace it. Stew Freedman isn’t here to make fried matzo anymore (or fix things around the house for me, or make a stupid-funny pun, or tell me a cheesy joke, or ask me about the plot of a sci-fi show he knows darn well I haven’t seen). So I decided to make it for myself at the start of Passover this year. There was just one problem: I didn’t have his recipe. I decided to use Kitchn’s recipe, figuring that after working here for more than five years, the site and the people here are like family in some way. Plus, it’s not a complicated dish.

I started by procuring a box of Manischewitz matzo, which was enough to make me tear up a bit. My mom always kept no fewer than six boxes in the house at all times because my dad regularly liked to have a sheet with some butter and (way too much) salt. You know, as a snack. I threw some extra boxes into my cart, so that I could enjoy the same snack even after Passover ended.

My dad set the house rules as follows: Matzo gets broken into pieces and matzo gets soaked in eggs. Happily, the Kitchn recipe follows those rules, too. I made the batter — eggs plus a dash of milk and a little bit of salt — and broke up the sheets. I tried to think of a silly joke that my dad would have liked. He once stepped on a Cheerio and said he was dangerous cereal killer. All I could think of was how I was still broken to pieces over his passing, but I knew he would not have liked that joke. The matzo pieces have to soak in the egg mixture for at least 10 minutes, so I decided to use that time to call my mom and check in. (Hi, Sue! Yes, my parents were Sue and Stew.)

When the pieces were soft and pliable, they were ready for the skillet. I spooned half of the matzo mixture into the melted, bubbling butter. At this point, my dad would often let out a mini scream on behalf of the “dying” matzo. (It has less of a ring to it, but I guess he was a matzo killer, too?) I cooked up the second half, plated the dish, added a heaping spoonful of grape jelly, and took a seat at the table.

This was the part that I was both excited for and also dreading. I wanted to taste those childhood flavors that reminded me so deeply of my dad. I wanted what so many people want: to be able to remember a loved one through food. I didn’t want to be disappointed. And I didn’t want to cry all over my fried matzo. Salt is a good addition to fried matzo; salty tears are not.

The meal was … exactly what I needed it to be. It was more comforting than I remembered. It tasted like home. Like the phone call I still desperately dream of receiving from him. Like the final goodbye we didn’t get to have. In case you’re wondering, I did cry over my matzo. But then I laughed out loud when I thought of a super timely pun: I was eating cried matzo.

What do you eat when you’re trying to remember a loved one? Tell us in the comments below.