By Paula Gottlieb Herman
What does The Mama Doni Band, matzo warm from the oven, chocolate layered marble halvah, and a pressed chicken sandwich all have in common? They were some of the amazing treats I experienced on the Lower East Side last Sunday.
The Lower East Side has always held a special place in my heart since my Dad was born there, my Bubbe taught me to make chicken soup there; we could buy pickles from a barrel, delicious knishes of every flavor, bialys with just the right amount of onion, and the most delicate flavored smoked fish. As a little girl, after my first subway ride from our apartment in Brooklyn to Manhattan, I was hooked!
On Sunday, March 10th, I reconnected with these roots by first attending Passover Palooza, the musical performance of Mama Doni and her band at the Streit’s Matzo Factory on Rivington Street, and then leading a walking tour to a few of Dad’s old haunts.
For those with children under age 12, Doni Zasloff Thomas (aka Mama Doni) is a powerhouse, with an exuberant personality, offering kids and adults a chance to come up on stage to sing, dance, wave their hands in the air, win prizes, and just have a ball. This is the second year that Streit’s has sponsored this pre-Passover event in their 88-year-old matzo factory.
When we signed in, we were ushered into a large store room with a wooden stage and tables lining the walls, filled with Streit’s yummy giveaways including chocolate candies, cookies, and white painter’s hats with the Streit’s red logo. The walls and columns were cleverly decorated with Streit’s Matzo box wrappers. Before the concert, Mama Doni was greeting guests, hanging out with the kids, and revving everybody up for a great show.
During her performance, Mama Doni got the audience up on their feet, quizzed the kids on their knowledge of Passover, and sang songs that had a whimsical and yet contemporary sound. I especially loved “Mission Immotzable,” “Rasta In Pasta,” and “Matzo Pizza.”
In addition to her concerts she has co-authored a Jewish American Family Cookbook called Get Cooking! After the show, Mama Doni autographed her books, CD’s, and even the Streit’s caps. We posed for a bunch of photos together and hope to offer a collaboration of her music and our LilChefs.com Special Events’ kid’s cooking workshops in the future.
The second part of Passover Palooza included group tours of the matzo factory. Streit’s estimated that between 400 and 500 people attended this event. The concert and factory tours were also being filmed for a documentary on the Lower East Side by Rivington Pictures. I told the filmmaker, Michael Levine, that I would love to help him plan for the screening parties for his film. Bringing together some of the best tastes of the Lower East Side would add another dimension to the audience’s experience. The film should be released in about six months. We’ll keep you posted.
Our 2:20 PM group gathered for its tour and learned all about making matzo. Every day at 7:00 AM, Streit’s receives their flour order. Each batch of matzo contains 80 pounds of flour and 25 pounds of water. There are two ovens that heat up to 1,000 degrees that bake the matzo. The gigantic mixers whirr flour and water together, and the whole process from mixing to baking, must be done in less than 18 minutes. After mixing, the dough is sent to the extruder, then the sheeter, then is perforated, sliced, goes through the tunnel shaped oven, baked for 90 seconds, broken into boards, stacked, counted, and sent upstairs by a chain conveyor. Fifteen boards of matzo are placed into a cubby on the conveyor, and a machine loads them into a box, closes it, wraps, it, and then packs it for shipping.
During Passover, a Rabbi inspects the mixing process, making sure that the 18-minute mix and bake time limit is observed. Streit’s bakes their Passover matzo inventory for six months. Then they will switch to their non-Passover varieties that include all the interesting flavors like Spelt, Moonstrip Onion and Poppy, Mediterranean, Egg & Onion, etc.
It was fascinating to see matzo being made from start to finish. When eating our matzo at the Seder table this year, Streit’s of course, I will remember all the hard work that went into producing that unleavened bread. Certainly not the same hardships endured by the Jews in Egypt, but hard work nonetheless. This factory turning out matzo products all year long since 1925, is heated in the winter only by the ovens, and cooled by fans and hydrating the employees in the summer. Streit’s is the only family-owned matzo company currently operating in the United States.
At the end of the tour, they handed us a board of matzo that was warm, literally, just out of the oven. Wow, what a treat! As my husband, Michael and I were eating our matzo outside and chatting with Aaron Gross, the great-grandson and co-owner of the company, a woman from New Jersey approached me and asked if I could make a recommendation for a place to eat lunch. Boy, did she pick the right person to ask! I told her that we were heading to Castillo de Jagua, a Dominican restaurant my Dad and I used to frequent. They made the most amazing pressed chicken sandwiches, way before we ever heard of a panini press, and succulent sweet fried plantains. I encouraged her and her group to come along with us. And they did!
The food at Castillo de Jagua was just as I remembered it. Delicioso!! My new friends and I had the baked chicken, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. By putting them in a press lined with aluminum foil, the bread is warmed, and the flavors all come together. As a girl and young woman, I loved going there with Dad both for the food and to try out my Spanish. Ordering my “pollo and platanos” was great for both my lips and my stomach. While I have ordered plantains in many restaurants, they have a special way of making them not taste greasy.
After a lovely lunch sharing great food, stories, and favorite recipes, Michael and I said our goodbyes to our lunch guests, and crossed the street to visit Economy Candy. That’s the candy store where Dad and I would buy chocolate covered marble halvah, chocolate covered graham crackers, chocolate covered orange peel, and old fashioned candies. It was great to go back there, and see it packed with visitors speaking different languages. That’s what I love about the Lower East Side. It has always been a melting pot of diverse cultures living side by side.
For those who have never tried halvah, it is a confection that dates back to at least the 13th century, made from crushed sesame seeds, honey or sugar syrup, vanilla, and sometimes nuts or chocolate are added. I made a beeline for the halvah and had so many choices: vanilla, marble, chocolate & nut covered, and chocolate marble. I bought a big slab of the chocolate coated marble kind. Then I checked out the counter and saw that they had my chocolate covered grahams. I could buy them in dark chocolate and milk chocolate. So I bought them both to compare. Previously I only sampled the milk chocolate one.
Michael had an interest in some of their tin reproduction signs. He purchased one showing a vintage Corvette for one of his clients. I also loved checking out the nostalgic tin cigar boxes, tin banks, etc.
After we bought our candies and headed to the car, I spotted The Children’s Magical Community Garden at Stanton and Norfolk Streets. Now, most community gardens I have visited have vegetables and flowers. But, this one had chickens! I couldn’t believe it. There in the middle of the Lower East Side is a community garden with a chicken coop. We were invited inside the gate by a lovely family volunteering there. By taking shifts feeding and taking care of the chickens, volunteers can keep the eggs the hens lay.
We were allowed to go into the coop and check out all the varieties of the chickens. They were all so unique, with different feather colors and patterns. My favorite was the little one they called “Speedy.” It was an Ameraucana hen, a breed that lays blue eggs. The volunteers named it Speedy since the other larger birds taunt it, so it has to be quick to escape injury. While Speedy’s eggs are blue, the rest of the hens lay brown eggs.
These chickens usually live on Randall’s Island, but with winter weather, getting out there can be difficult. So, this community garden has allowed them to be “snow birds” on the Lower East Side. They will be returned to their home in May. But, since the community now likes having chickens there, they are considering buying some of their own. I hope to go back to this garden later this summer. They had a sign posted that they have a “pizza garden” with all veggie toppings you would want on a pizza including peppers, eggplant, tomatoes. And, since our company, LilChefs.com Special Events offers award-winning Pizza Making Parties; I’ve got to check out it out.
Michael and I found our car, and savored dark chocolate grahams while driving back to Long Island. Wow, they were so delicious. I especially loved how thick the cookie part was. And the chocolate coating had just the right flavor. Dark chocolate can taste a little bitter since it has less sugar and more flavonoids. But this one’s a keeper.
This was an amazing day of surprises. Both of the gastronomic variety and those that fill the soul!! While I so wish my Dad was there to enjoy the day with us, I know he was responsible for directing me around his beloved Lower East Side stomping grounds.
Postscript: Last night we finished the last portion of our chocolate layered halvah (we ate small squares for four evenings). Our little chunks of heaven are now gone, but will be lovingly remembered!