Resetting the Purim table

There is nothing better than a poppy-seed hamantaschen. The soft, buttery pastry, crammed with achingly-sweet, figgy poppy-seed filling, is so ridiculously delicious that it’s the highlight of a holiday on which Jews dress up in costume, exchange gifts and—according to Talmudic tradition—are commanded to get so drunk they can’t tell good from evil. They’re that good.

Why am I telling you this? Because apparently someone else failed to tell the current generation of hamantaschen-eaters. After a near-millenium of reigning comfortably as the preeminent hamantaschen filling—fending off a serious 18th-century challenge mounted by prunes—poppy seed is suddenly beyond passé. Today’s most popular hamantaschen are filled with chocolate, peanut butter or raspberry preserves.
“Poppy seed is kind of low on the list,” confirms the Asheville Jewish Community Center’s Membership and Events Coordinator Natalie Kramer, who supervises the organization’s annual hamantaschen contest. Last year, an entrant entranced the judges with a—no joke—chocolate-chip mocha hamantaschen. For the non-Purim celebrant, that’s tantamount to Santa wearing a hula skirt.

“We live in a chocolate world,” commiserates Gil Marks, the James Beard-award-winning author of books including The World of Jewish Cooking (Simon and Schuster, 1996) and The World of Jewish Desserts (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Marks is a poppy seed man. And though he lives in the land of kugel, babkas and rugelach (better known as New York City), he’s discovered his hamantaschen preference makes him a bit of an outcast come Purim season.

“I’m really depressed on Purim because it’s so hard to find a poppy-seed hamantaschen,” Marks says. “The last couple years, you’ve had to search for poppy-seed hamantaschen because people do everything but that. It’s sad.”

Poppy seeds haven’t yet vanished entirely from the Jewish spice cabinet. Traditional bread products like challah and bialies are still dusted with poppies, although the smattering of seeds most bakers apply is a wishy-washy imitation of the total poppy-seed coating that was de rigeur a few decades ago. Poppy-seed bagels remain relatively popular. But poppy seeds are no longer the go-to spice in Jewish cookery.

“After the Crusades, poppy seeds were front and center,” says Marks.

Poppy seeds, which most likely first sprouted in southwestern Europe, migrated to Asia during the Bronze Age. The plant found its way to central Europe sometime before Jewish communities landed there, and offered one of the few inexpensive seasonings then available.

“Jewish cooking in the Diaspora is a matter of adaptation,” Marks explains.

Ashkenazi Jews were soon gobbling up poppy seeds, using the spice as promiscuously as some folks today use Tabasco sauce or ketchup. While other central-European cultures treated poppy seeds like a garnish, Jewish cooks doused their dishes in them. They rubbed poppy seeds on meat. They stirred them into honey to create a makeshift dessert. Poppy seeds were such an integral element of the Jewish cook’s repertoire that 20th-century Americans instinctively reached for them when doctoring Duncan Hines cakes.

“The only cake I like is where you put poppy seeds in with cake mix, vanilla pudding and chocolate chips,” says legendary Jewish food authority Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America (Random House, 1998), quoting a recipe that surfaced in countless temple Sisterhood cookbooks.

But the peanut-butter-and-jelly level pairing was poppy seed and pastry, a culinary masterpiece rooted in a pun. The Yiddish word for poppy seed is “mohn,” which is a near-homonym for Haman, the great villain of the Purim story. “Taschen” means pockets—it’s the same word that gives us the term “cash” for the money you keep in your pockets. So a hamantaschen is quite rightly a triangular-shaped pastry stuffed with poppy seeds. (The shape, by the way, has nothing to do with the three-cornered hat Haman allegedly wore, despite claims made by the Hebrew-school holiday jingle “My Hat It Has Three Corners.”)

“It’s a medieval Teutonic pastry,” says Marks. “What makes a hamantaschen unique is the way it’s filled. And it becomes, for quite awhile, the predominant Ashkenazi Purim food.”

Though some hamantaschen makers no doubt flirted with different fillings, anything other than mohn was long considered a rather peculiar aberration. But poppy seed nearly lost its footing in Jungbuzlau, a small Bohemian town where David Brandeis made his living selling prunes. In 1731, Brandeis sold a jar of prune butter to a bookbinder’s daughter. The girl shared the jam with her family members, all of whom sampled it and promptly became seriously ill. The bookbinder died.

Outraged, the community imprisoned Brandeis, his wife and his son for poisoning Christians. When it was discovered the real culprit in the bookbinder’s death was tuberculosis, the Brandeises were set free.

“In Jewish communities, when a person is saved from imminent threat, they celebrate with a Purim,” says Marks. “So this city decided to use hamantaschen with prune filling to celebrate his release.”

Poppy-seed and prune hamantaschen were apparently enjoyed with equal gusto by American Jews throughout much of the 20th century. Prune, of course, was ultimately doomed by its reputation as a laxative, an association barely dented by the California Prune Board’s much-publicized campaign to market their products as “dried plums.”

Poppy seed’s slide down the popularity ladder may also be traced to the doctor’s office. Fruit salads scattered with poppy seeds and lemon poppy-seed cakes—staples of California-seeped 1980s cuisine—vanished from cooking magazines in the 1990s as reports emerged of poppy seeds producing false positives on drug tests. In a 1997 paper entitled “Beware the Poppy Seed Bagel,” two researchers established that—as Elaine discovered in a memorable Seinfeld episode—eating poppy seeds could derail a career.

Poppy seed hamantaschen haters cite a different reason for shunning the traditional pastry: Taste. Detractors complain about the strangely foreign flavor of poppy seeds and their distinctive grittiness on the tongue.

Nathan politely describes the taste of poppy seeds as “nostalgic.”

“I don’t really like sweet poppy-seed filling,” says Nathan, who saves her poppy seeds for savory dishes. “It’s so sweet, and the prepared fillings are even sweeter.”

Making poppy-seed filling from scratch requires a lengthy bout of grinding and stirring, creating a niche for premade poppy fillings that even poppy-seed fans call uniformly awful.

“I often make my own poppy-seed filling, which is so much superior to the stuff out there,” says Marks.

Still, even the most talented home cooks have to contend with the declining quality of poppy seeds. According to Paige Esbrook, Web manager for The Spice House, a leading spice merchant in Chicago, poppy-seed production has recently shifted from Holland—where real estate has become too valuable to waste on poppy crops—to Australia.

“The Australian poppy seeds are smaller and grayer,” Esbrook explains. “They have less of a nutty flavor.”

Compounding the poppy-seed problems, the spice is burdened with a highly specific set of storage instructions, since it has a tendency to go rancid quickly. Poppy seeds are also expensive, which is why Nathan usually substitutes sesame seeds whenever she can.

Someone, somewhere, has probably tinkered with sesame-seed hamantaschen. But the vast majority of hamantaschen updaters are smitten with ooey-gooey chocolate: Google produces nearly 20,000 hits for “chocolate hamantaschen recipe”—more than five times the number of recipes posted for the poppy-seed variety.

“Chocolate just knocks everything else out of the way,” says Marks, who bashfully admits he may have inadvertently sparked the recent chocolate hamantaschen frenzy.

“When I did Kosher Gourmet magazine, maybe 20 years ago, I got a letter asking if I could find a chocolate hamantaschen recipe, and I created one,” Marks says. “So I guess I’m sort of guilty in promoting this.”

Marks, a thoroughly New York New Yorker who—when I reach him by phone—complains he hasn’t been sleeping because Con Ed’s been making a racket,  has done some serious handwringing over his role in the chocolate revolution. Rabbi Shaya Susskind of Asheville’s Chabad House would advise him not to worry.

“As generations proceed, and you want to make Jewish culture more palatable, you appeal to their flavors,” Susskind says. “The new generation, they usually take the new flavor.”

According to Susskind, there are many, many things the Torah prohibits Jews from doing. Eating shrimp cocktail. Wearing leather shoes on certain holy days. Watching television on Friday nights. Enjoying a chocolate hamantaschen is most decidedly not on the list.

“In areas that allow for more flexibility, we take advantage of that,” Susskind says. “If we can be flexible, we’re flexible.”

Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at food@mountainx.com.

Hamantaschen Contest

Poppy-seed hamantaschen are unlikely to be marquee players at the Jewish Community Center’s upcoming hamantaschen contest. “You have an advantage if you’re creative and stand out,” advises organizer Natalie Kramer—but poppy-seed fans can still get their fix at two local outlets. City Bakery is offering poppy-seed, apricot, prune and raspberry hamantaschen at 75 cents each; the minimum order is six. While a few hamantaschen may find their way to the bakery’s display case, pastry chef Sarah Resnick suggests interested customers place their orders at least 48 hours in advance. “Last year, the raspberry and the apricot were the best sellers, but I personally recommend the poppy seed,” Resnick e-mails. “It’s a much under-appreciated flavor!” For more information, call 252-4426.

The Chabad House is also taking orders for hamantaschen from Brooklyn’s Reisman Brothers’ Bakery: Customers can order by the case ($35 for approximately 100 hamantaschen), half-case ($20) or single hamantasch (50 cents). “We order in bulk a variety of flavors: apricot, raspberry, prune and poppy-seed,” says Rabbi Susskind. “All the proceeds help support Chabad.” To place an order, call 505-0746.

The JCC will hold its fourth annual hamantaschen contest in conjunction with its annual Purim Carnival on Mar. 8. Contestants must deliver one dozen hamantaschen to the center, 236 Charlotte St., by the day of the festival, to be judged by members of the “Bubbe Brigade.” The entries will also be sold at the carnival, “so if you get these early, you can buy a winner,” says Kramer. To learn more, call 253-0701.

SHARE

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.