NOMA — Like any devout member of the tribe, Jessica Katz looks forward to Passover Seder, the Jewish ritual feast that involves the retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.
She enjoys the time spent with family and friends, the customs, the opportunity to reflect and give thanks — and, most of all the, matzo, that unleavened flat bread considered by many to be the official food of Passover.
Some find matzo bland, kind of like a Saltine cracker without the salt. But not Katz. She loves it plain, mixed with eggs, brown sugar and cinnamon (matzah brei) or floating in a bowl of soup.
But after being diagnosed four years ago with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder in which your body’s own immune system attacks your intestines when you eat gluten, the protein found in grains, especially wheat, and used as a thickening agent in many foods — she realized that she could no longer enjoy one of her favorite eats, and more importantly not participate fully in the seder. And that’s a serious blow to any dedicated Jew.
“We essentially go through an oral and gastronomic simulation, in a sense, through the history of our people . … All the foods that we eat are symbolic of the various components of that story,” Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica said of seder dinner.
There is the horseradish to remind people of the bitterness of slavery, parsley to symbolize birth and celery dipped in salt water to simulate the tears shed by those oppressed. And of course the matzo, which is unleavened because the Israelites didn’t have enough time to let the dough rise before they had to flee Egypt.
“During Passover we take all leavening out of our diet so that we take in a sense of the weight of persecution and enslavement,” the rabbi said. “If Passover is about anything, it is about human rights.”
Wanting to participate in the seder as much as possible, Jennifer and her husband Ben embarked on a mission to create a gluten-free matzo recipe.
“It started off as a project at home,” Ben said.
It’s now become the family business — www.GlutenFreeMatzo.com. There people can buy gluten-free matzo from the Yehuda bakery in Israel, as well as gluten-free noodles and macaroons and a gluten-free Passover cookbook. The matzo is certified gluten free by the leading organization and actually tastier than the traditional brands.
“How often can you say that?” Ben asked.
Lots of dough
Matzo is big business. Consumers are expected to spend more than $3.5 million on matzo during the week leading up to Passover.
At Chabad in S. Monica, Rabbi Isaac Levitansky expects to distribute over 1,000 pounds of matzo to those in the community who are financially strapped or physically unable to get to a supermarket to purchase their own.
“Over the last couple of years there hasn’t been a shortage [of matzo in local grocery stores,]” he said. “But in other years there has been. You just never know.”
People typically start stocking up on matzo about a week or so before Passover, Levitansky said. Those who are dangerously allergic to gluten get a pass, he said, but others are required to eat matzo during Passover. The required amount each day is minimal, about half of a standard piece.
But even that small amount can pose problems.
Jessica found out she had celiac disease four years ago.
“I would eat cereal in the morning and then a few minutes later I would literally get like nine months pregnant,” she said. That led her to see her doctor, who had her eat something with gluten. After a few minutes, her stomach swelled so much that a button on her pants popped off. It was definitive — she could no longer eat many of the foods she loved.
“I thought all I’m going to eat now is yogurt and cottage cheese.”
It turns out that Jewish people may be more susceptible to gluten allergies. According to the American Journal of Gastroenterology, about one in 130 people are affected by celiac disease. Jews experience gluten allergies at significantly higher rates.
At first it was difficult. A diabetic, she had trouble finding the right foods to help with her blood sugar. Going out to eat was nearly impossible as gluten can be found in almost everything.
“It was horrible,” said Jennifer, who used to stalk celebrities while working as a reporter for Star Magazine before she gave birth to two kids. “I’m the type that can live on Lucky Charms for days. I’ve always been a carb person. Now that was off limits.”
With more awareness came a market. Restaurants and grocery stores started offering more gluten-free products, helping bring the cost down while making it more convenient for Jennifer and others like her to maintain their diets.
The U.S. market for gluten-free foods and beverages experienced a compounded annual growth rate of 30 percent from 2006 to 2010 and was a $2.6 billion market in 2010, according to the analysis “Gluten-free Foods and Beverages in the U.S., 3rd Edition,” released last year by Packaged Facts.
Growth rates will slow, according to the analysis, but U.S. sales of gluten-free products will exceed $5 billion by 2015.
Many of those purchasing gluten-free products do so by choice, not out of necessity. These consumers feel gluten-free is healthier and can help treat medical conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to autism.
Jessica and Ben saw a market and decided to take their recipe, which they developed in their kitchen, to the mainstream. They hope this Passover, which kicks off April 6, those suffering celiac disease or other gluten allergies will be able to incorporate it into their celebrations.
And if they like it, perhaps branching out. Instead of crackers crushed in chili, why not matzo?