Move to Manhattan, Learn the Mysteries of Matzo Brei

Growing up as a half-Jew in a Bible Belt Southern town, I’ve often felt like I missed out on a lot of the culinary cultural hallmarks that seem ingrained even in New Yorkers who aren’t of the faith. When I was a kid, we had no appetizing stores, our bagels were Lender’s, we couldn’t go by Streit’s in the Lower East Side for a free taste of almost buttery hot matzo (a company I wrote about in this magazine back in 2009), and instead of brisket for Passover we made roast lamb with mint pepper jelly.

(Likely a holdover from my father’s Episcopalian Easter suppers in Mississippi.)

And unlike most Manhattan Jewish families on mornings like this one (meaning the day after the first night’s seder) we didn’t make matzo brei, the fried-up mix of the leftover unleavened bread, eggs and whatever else your family tradition demanded. The word brei, by the way, is German for a porridgey-mush, even though U.S. Yiddish speakers now use it to mean “fry.”

Breis can be sweet (with soft cheese and cinnamon and sugar or apricot jam) or savory, with artichoke hearts and mushrooms or rosemary and garlic or red peppers and ricotta. They can be frittata-like and perfectly round, or a shaggy mess with crusty corners and broken bits. Some folks let the mazto soak in milk and egg for hours, others go for rag-tag pieces tossed in at the last minute. All are kosher.

These variations, by the way, I was delighted to learn around five years ago when I was a reporter at the Daily News, and I conducted a brei-off with the help of the 92nd Street Y. Not surprisingly, brei is just like brisket, meaning most contestants never tasted any better than their mother’s. Without any similar prejudices, I can happily say I loved them all. Happy Passover!

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.