The Bread of Affliction

by Amy Cook


April 4, 2012, gchat

me: If Pat and I drive to Grandma and Bob’s on Sunday morning with groceries, do you think I can get Grandma to make me some matzah brei?

My brother, Marc: i suppose

April 7, 2014, gchat

Me, to Marc: I’m going to reply to that Passover email and inquire about the availability of matzah brei

March 30, 2020, text

me: Any chance of getting a matzah brei Youtube tutorial?

Aunt Shirley: With pleasure. I will gladly work on a Barbara Shapiro memorial matzah brei tutorial! I do it just the way she taught me. Watch for it later this week.

~

My strongest holiday memories are of breakfast. I scramble down the steps to find I am first alive to the day. Perhaps a cousin is passed out on the couch, the youngest of my generation still enjoying the last elasticity of the body. I turn a light on. I wait.

It is referred to as the rotating Shapiro breakfast; siblings, parents, aunts, uncles; everyone trickles in (some with matted hair and pajamas, others scrubbed, combed and neatly dressed) until my aunt and uncle’s spacious kitchen teems with us. Some eat and wander to nap on a waiting couch. Others take the morning Post and pass the sections as if they are equally interesting. Me, I sip cup after cup of black coffee, often to my stomach’s dismay, holding off on offers to eat while I take in these rare days that I am a small part of a large family. I thrive in the patterns of conversation and debate, the family gossip, the words of the world.

This goes on for hours. Growing up, once everyone was awake, my grandmother would beg for the third time for me to finally eat, and then, I would consent only to a big plate of her matzah brei.

As American Jews, our rhythms are as seasonal as our food, gatherings at Passover and Thanksgiving spread out across the year like highway rest stops. We complicate this with in-laws, choosing to gather on days that are not really Passover or Thanksgiving. We cling to these times of togetherness so much so that the date for our initial seder last year was “the weekend that follows on the heels of official Passover which runs from April 8-16 and which does not conflict with Easter.”

And when it became clear, last spring, that we were not going to meet for Passover at all, my attention turned to my late grandmother’s matzah brei. Not to my cousin who was isolating in a bedroom after spiking a fever. Not to my niece, who was born premature in the fall of 2019. By the time we called off Passover on March 26, 2020, more than 120 people were dying per day in my city, a number that would increase almost ten-fold in the two weeks following. And I was consumed by the idea of food.

I look back now on my calendar from that time and it is filled with entries detailing deliveries; the butcher shop, grocery store, subscription services. A few weeks before, I had panicked and bought enough food for several weeks, but the idea of subsisting on Chef Boyardee and Gatorade was less romantic than I had expected. We could still go to the bodega for eggs and milk, but there was no bread.

Happily, my craving did not require bread.

Now, I do not particularly like matzah. Do you know anyone who does? It is dusty and flat, the literal product of ancient Jewish suffering. You can encase it in chocolate, but that only goes so far. But when you fry it in an omelet and give it a name, well this I like.

But it is not just the taste. This is the only memory I have of my grandmother cooking, our New Jersey palates more accustomed to diners and Chinese takeout than anything homemade. And I can picture her feeding her three little boys, long before her nine grandchildren; the first hot-oil bite is one of the few experiences that we all share. My father loads his with preserves. I take mine with salt and pepper. Some of my cousins inhale theirs without seeming to ever taste a morsel. We enjoy life differently.

Though I am a decent cook, I had no idea how to embark upon this recipe for myself, having paid attention not one time in the dozens of mornings this has lovingly been prepared for me. And though I have been on my own for Passover before, what makes this year different is that I am, inside, a glass that has been shattered into thousands of tiny pieces. All day and all night, ambulances race past my window. When I run outside, it is past a field hospital. I have lost my 40th birthday and my understanding of the world. I cannot lose this breakfast.

My aunt makes the tutorial from her home in Massachusetts. On video, the sunlight streams behind her, a vast backyard in the distance. I haven’t been outside in days. She breaks the matzos in a strainer and runs them under almost boiling water. My editor cousin has, here, put my grandmother’s face in the corner, smiling. My aunt soaks and seasons the matzah in eggs, the pink walls of her kitchen alight with day. She heats the pan now, and elsewhere in the house, someone goes out, setting off a bell. “You want to make sure there’s egg on the corners,” she guides, pouring the mess into the hot pan. After a few minutes, the eggs bubble, and the matzah brei takes shape.

It is ready to eat.I make this on my own, once, twice, maybe a dozen times that spring. I eat it on work calls, my video turned off. When the matzah runs out, I buy it off-season. Now, it is July of the following year, and once a week, it tastes like I am learning to care for myself.


About the author:

Amy Cook (she/her) recently completed the 2021 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Creative Nonfiction. Recent and upcoming publications: TulipTree Review (Disruptors Contest/Honorable Mention, 2021) Bird Bath Magazine (January 2022), Superpresent Magazine (winter 2021-22), La Piccioletta Barca (2021), Apricity Press (2022), Thimble Magazine (2022), Queer Families Anthology (2017). She will be joining the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2022. She is the Legal Administrative Manager of Lambda Legal. She was a charter member of the Youth Pride Chorus, as well as a singing and associate member of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. She holds a B.A. in Political Science, summa cum laude, with Distinction, from Rider University. Outside of her professional work, Cook is an award winning lyricist (BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, BMI Harrington Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement) and a marathoner. She is married to lyricist Patrick Cook.

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