This is not a food that most people are even aware exists. And just to be clear, for any food snobs, don’t pronounce this “bree” as in brie cheese; it’s not nearly that sophisticated. It’s pronounced “bry” as in “bribe” or, more relevantly, “fry.” Think of it as a kind of Hebraic French toast. Now remove the toast and the maple syrup. My mom ate this as a child; it was a specialty at Ratner’s, but she also made it for me when I was a little boy, and I loved it. We used to eat it together on weekends. She liked it with apple sauce on the side. And sometimes a dollop of sour cream. She also sometimes ate it with a small helping of jam, which she often made herself, from scratch. I usually preferred my fried matzo salty rather than sweet.
Matzo brei is the first thing I tried making for my mother once I began my search for the meaning of food, family, and life. It did not require a lot of training or preparation. To be honest, a reasonably intelligent monkey could make a decent matzo brei. But during my cooking process, I proudly went where no simian had gone before.
Before cooking, I did learn a tiny bit about the dish. And that’s all there really is to learn about this particular repast. Matzo brei, in Hebrew and in Yiddish, literally means “fried matzo,” which gives you some indication of its subtlety and complexity. It is of Ashkenazi Jewish origin and although various sources say that it can either be formed into a cake, like a frittata, or broken up and cooked like scrambled eggs, my mother’s version in her Ratner’s cookbook disagrees. There, she has one recipe for “fried matzo,” which is stirred in the pan and thus scrambled, and one recipe for “matzo brei,” which is served pancake-style. I made brei.
Wikipedia points out that, in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, if matzo brei is prepared with any dairy product (e.g., butter), it should not be eaten with meat, nor should it be eaten with dairy if cooked in schmaltz (chicken fat). It is, of course, on the weird side that people follow dietary laws that were dictated by sanitary conditions from thousands of years ago. To make it even weirder, matzo brei is commonly eaten as a breakfast food during Passover, when, according to Jewish law, only unleavened bread is permitted. However, Wikipedia also points out that some Jews refuse to eat matzo brei during Passover because they do not eat gebrochts, matzo that has come into contact with water. In case you don’t think that religious instruction is insane, please read that last line again. It is against Jewish law to eat a piece of dry, unleavened bread if it touches water. If need be, read the line aloud. At some point, it’ll sink in.
I felt no need to master this simple dish before attempting to make it. I just decided to take the plunge, so I called my mom on a Saturday and told her I wanted to come over the next day to prepare her a surprise breakfast. The first and only real stumbling block in my plan was, on Sunday morning, finding a market that carried matzo. Apparently, a lot of stores only carry this product during Jewish holidays (and I guess only in places where they can shelve it so it doesn’t touch water; I can’t bear to think about the matzo that must have been discarded after Hurricane Katrina). But, happily, I live in New York City, so it was easier finding a box of matzo than it might have been if I were searching in, say, Huntsville, Alabama. It was a no go at the high-end Citarella store, and I struck out at my local Korean bodega, but the Gristedes supermarket a few blocks from my apartment had a whole shelf of the stuff, and two kinds, at that: plain and onion. Not one to mess with tradition, I went with the plain.
My mother was quite pleased when I outlined my plan. She hadn’t tasted matzo brei in years. I asked her if she’d help, or at least oversee my attempt to re-create such an iconic dish from both of our youths, so her home companion pushed her wheelchair into the doorway of the kitchen as I began.
I started by putting everything I needed on the kitchen counter and realized my mom was watching me like a hawk. Suddenly my nerves kicked in. No matter how simple the recipe, I really wanted this to work.
The first step was easy enough—I took a few matzos out of the box and put them in a bowl of water. Done and done.
When the matzos looked appropriately soggy to me, I was about to drain them but my mother commanded me to stop. Her voice contained a note of surprise as well as disapproval. I’d go so far as to say she was aghast. She said, “Give it to me.” I held the bowl out in front of me and she reached out, stuck her left hand in the bowl, picked up a chunk of the matzo, and rubbed it between her fingers.
My mother loves manicures—she gets one once a week. It is one of her rare vanities in her 90s, and she preens for several days each time she goes to the manicurist, holding up her nails for all to admire. This particular morning, I wasn’t paying attention to her perfect nails, though. I was noticing how old her fingers looked. How thin. Her skin seemed to be wrapped tightly around each digit, formfitting and deeply wrinkled. Nonetheless, they plunged strongly into the bowl and rubbed the mushy texture expertly. Those fingers suddenly became 60 years younger. My mother knew how drowning matzos were supposed to feel, and it only took her a second or two to nod her head in satisfaction. The nod said: Now you can proceed.
No monkey I ever heard of absorbed this kind of knowledge in a kitchen: Sometimes your food needs to feel right before you can go ahead and cook it. Texture counts. Don’t be afraid to plunge your hands right in.
Now I drained the bowl, getting out the excess water, and added some salt and pepper; less salt than I normally would use because my mom’s on a low-salt diet. I love sweets—almost anything that tastes sugary—but I love salt even more. If forced to choose, I’d go with a heavily salted fried egg over even the most delectable chocolate brownie. If it were up to me, I would have sprinkled that salt for another 10 seconds or so, but out of consideration, I just flicked in a drop of sea salt and mixed it around. Possibly the first selfless food act of my life.
Next: time for the eggs. I cracked the first of four eggs into the blue plastic bowl containing the soggy matzos. Immediately, a bit of shell fell in the bowl and I stabbed at it with my finger to try to remove it. Before I even managed to touch anything, I heard the words: “You don’t crack them over the same bowl.”
In all the years I’d been cooking, this is something that had never occurred to me. My modus operandi was always to crack my eggs on the inside rim of the bowl I was working with, then, annoyed, pick out any pieces of shell that had fallen into whatever mixture was already there.
I went, “Really?” and my mother said, “Of course not.” She said it rather sternly, too. I told her that I’d always done it this way and she gave me a look that said she was seriously considering the possibility that her younger son was a borderline idiot.
I got a second bowl out, cracked the remaining three eggs into it, picked out the one or two pieces of shell that did indeed drop in, and, when all was clean, dumped the shell-less eggs into the larger bowl with the matzo. My mother looked at me proudly, as if I’d just performed my first successful brain surgery.
I heated the skillet, then added the butter. Even though I’d normally use olive oil, I decided to go with the recipe as printed. Why screw around?
When the pan—on medium heat—was sizzling with the melted butter, I poured the matzo mix in and spread it evenly so it was pancake-like. I turned the heat up just a bit and waited.
One of my many flaws, in the kitchen and out, is that I’m impatient. At the stove, I always turn things over too quickly, trying to will my food to cook faster. I also want the people I work with to talk faster and the guys I play poker with to deal faster. I’m impatient to get to the point as well as to things I want to enjoy. But I forced myself to wait until I was fairly certain the matzos were properly brown on one side. It wasn’t easy but I held firm. I poked at the stuff with a spatula, trying to get a sense of where things stood, and when the timing seemed right, I flipped the pancake, exactly as instructed.
The cooked side was a lovely, evenly spread brown. I’d say it looked professional, if there was such a thing as professional-looking matzo brei, which I doubt. I took the pan off the heat for a moment to show my mom. She looked impressed. Avoiding too much hubris, I made sure it went quickly back on the fire.
A couple of minutes later, the B-side was also done, and we were ready to eat.
I asked my mom if she preferred applesauce, sour cream, or jam. She chose jam, saying that this was always her favorite combination. She had a fancy raspberry jam in her fridge, as well as an equally fancy cherry, so I put both out. We both used the cherry and it was the right call.
As we ate this perfect combination of savory and sweet, I could tell that my mother was delighted. Since her stroke, she has had to learn to eat mostly with her left hand—she is naturally right-handed—so she eats slowly and deliberately, as it’s difficult to maneuver a knife and fork. She will rarely ask for help, though, even when cutting a tough steak, and she does way better than I ever could as a lefty. This breakfast required no cutting, however, so she ate heartily and, for her, quickly. Her delight ultimately overcame her decorum and she pretty much wound up skipping the fork completely to just go with the thumb and forefinger of her left hand.
“As good as I remember,” she said when we’d both finished. “It felt authentic.”
Watching her lick the last remaining bit of cherry preserve off a knuckle on her left hand, I must admit I felt authentic, too.
Excerpted with permission from My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life, copyright © 2017 by Peter Gethers, published by Henry Holt and Company.
Peter Gethers is an author, screenwriter, playwright, book editor, and film and television producer. He is also co-creator and co-producer of the off-Broadway play Old Jews Telling Jokes.