#BecauseGluten: A gluten-free Passover isn't as hard as you'd think

This pagan cooked a Seder meal sans gluten, and it was good.

click to enlarge Yes, this matzo ball soup is gluten-free — and, contrary to how it looks, delicious. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Yes, this matzo ball soup is gluten-free — and, contrary to how it looks, delicious.

I'm in line at Publix trying to explain Passover to the teenage boy bagging my groceries, and I'm hoping like crazy there are no Jewish people listening.

A bag of Lay's starts the discussion. I saw the specially marked potato chips and put them in my cart not because anything I'd read about a proper Seder mentioned chips, but because my friend and occasional CL freelancer Arin Greenwood (and her husband Ray) were coming to this practice-run gluten-free Seder dinner and, as my Passover Sherpa, I was hoping she could explain it to me.

The bag boy asked about the green label, and when he kind of tugged at it — I was worried he thought it was a coupon — I asked him not to. I'm certain he believed he'd come close to violating Talmudic law. In reality, I wanted the tag on there so I could get a photo for this article. 

My request, of course, launched a series of sincere questions about Passover, all of which I was ill-equipped to answer, as my Roman Catholic upbringing failed to adequately educate me on the finer points of the holiday, much less the ritual. But with almost $100 worth of Passover food in my basket, I can see where he might've thought I'd be able to answer questions. 

Onto the Seder. During a recent editorial meeting, our editor-in-chief David Warner suggested I try making a gluten-free Passover dinner, so here I am. And, turns out, it wasn't that hard, because Passover is almost a gluten-free holiday already. The whole idea of matzo is unleavened bread, and guess what makes bread rise? Yip, gluten. In observant Jewish households, preparation for the Seder involves removing all traces of bread from the home, among other things — including crumbs in the pantry and a different, never-been-touched-by-bread set of dishes and pans. Since every celiac ever has already done that upon receiving a diagnosis, I can skip this part.

Nevertheless, matzo does, indeed, have gluten (Jewish law is pretty clear on what types are allowed and the process by which these matzos are made), so I'm on the hunt for gluten-free matzo. Surprisingly, Rollin' Oats disappoints. It's recently become my go-to gluten-free market, on the recommendation of more than one #BecauseGluten reader. I find a recipe for making gluten-free matzo, but the flour is mail-order only and I need it before the promised date. So I turn, with limited hopes, to Publix. See, Publix doesn't boast the most robust selection of gluten-free items, and when I head to the "ethnic foods" aisle (um, aren't all foods ethnic, Publix?), I see nothing gluten-free at all. I google "how to make gluten-free matzo ball soup," then see a sign to check the Passover display by register one.

When it comes to gluten-free Passover, Publix brings its A-game. I find gluten-free matzo, gluten-free matzo ball soup mix, gluten-free egg noodles. I go crazy. 

click to enlarge A bag of kosher and Passover appropriate Lay's. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
A bag of kosher and Passover appropriate Lay's.

The bottom line for a gluten-free Passover (or Seder) dinner is this: It's not hard. No, the Yeshudah gluten-free matzo aren't approved for Passover — kosher for Passover is different than at other times of the year — but as I'm not even making the Seder on the right day (and also not Jewish), I buy a box without guilt.

Later, at our house, Arin explains the Passover ritual and the meaning of every item on the Seder plate (fellow gentiles: you can find a pretty good explanation here) when her husband casually mentions, "You know, the Jews were never actually in Egypt."

I raise an eyebrow.

"Yeah, Ray's a lot of fun to have at Passover," Arin laughs.

True story. The entire book of Exodus may be invented. However symbolic, though, the story is deeply meaningful for Jewish people. The Seder plate — at our house — contains horseradish (maror), parsley (karpas), charoset, romaine (chazaret), roasted egg (baytsah) and roasted beet (in place of the lamb shank bone, or zeroah, and approved for Seder since around the 11th century). In addition, we have a bowl of salt water, wine (enough for four cups per person, according to tradition) and the matzo — both gluten-filled and gluten-free on the table. 

During the Seder, the Haggadeh is read. This tells the story of Pescah, or Passover, using the items on and near the Seder plate to do so. But that isn't nearly enough to feed anyone, so I make some traditional dishes to accompany the meal: corned beef brisket, gluten-free matzo ball soup, tzimmes (carrots and prunes and honey), salad (I bought a bag of romaine and used half a leaf — I had to do something with the rest), potato kugel (which is disgusting, and Arin tells me that means I made it properly), and gluten-free latkes, although they're not really a Passover dish.

The matzo ball soup is disappointing. These gluten-free balls of matzo seem, well, gluteny. And I don't mean in taste — they're gummy, like when you knead (non-gluten-free) bread dough for too long and the gluten breaks down too much. Arin assures me a traditional Passover meal involves people complaining about the soup; "Is this matzo ball soup or cannonball soup?" is a popular refrain. I feel like I'm getting this Seder thing right, at least a little bit. The matzo ball soup stew, incidentally, tastes delicious, despite its gummy consistency.

The takeaway? Preparing a gluten-free Passover isn't nearly as difficult as making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner sans gluten. As with so many of Judaism's dietary rules, the meals seem simple and more based in health. There may be a whole (made-up) story as to why there should be almost no gluten in the Passover home, but with an increasing number of health-related issues swirling around the over-consumption (or, in the case of celiacs and some Hashimoto sufferers, any consumption) of gluten, these ancient practices have relevance in modern society, and it has nothing to do with Moses.

On Friday night, Passover begins. And guess what this Italian will have on the table? You betcha, a gluten-free Seder.

Chag pesach v'same'ach. Happy holidays.

Also, h/t to Arin Greenwood for my new favorite a capella group:

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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