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Food + Cooking

A New York Minute


One night around Thanksgiving, I took a walk on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and came across an amazing sight.  In the midst of Latino convenience stores and hipster boutiques, three men were toiling in an obscure factory, cranking out piles of matzo. My friend Debbie and I stopped at the squat windows to watch, transfixed by the ancient machinery, the kind of clanging metal contraptions that seem at once crude and ingenious.

The matzo rolled out of the conveyor oven in sheets, twice as wide as a man's torso. The men worked in rhythm with the machines, chatting occasionally in Spanish and snapping the sheets into neat piles, stacking them on moving racks that cycled through the room suspended in mid-air until they disappeared into the back of the factory.

I turned to ask Debbie if she knew about this place when I heard a voice behind me. An old man was looking in the window, calling across the street and waving his arms excitedly. "Eli!  Eli! Come over here! This is amazing!"

The man's wife crossed over to see what he was fussing about. Eli didn't seem to be paying much attention.

"This is amazing! Look! This is Streits' matzo!" he shouted again. Eli, teenaged and bored, picked up his skateboard and walked over listlessly. "I've never seen this before," the man said to the woman. "You can see… if these guys would move over a little bit… Excuse me!" he called to the men working the matzo line. "Excuse me, can you move over a little bit?" They shrugged and went back to work.

The woman looked in the window, looked at the men, and became confused. "They're not Jewish.  Is that legal?"

The old man was undeterred. "If you look, you can see it come right out of the oven."

"They're not Jewish," she said again.   

A rabbi walked in. "Well, he's Jewish," the old man said. 

One of the workers turned to the window with a few pieces of matzo.

"Oh! They're hot! the old man exclaimed while taking some for his family.

"You better wear gloves, man," the matzo maker laughed before seeing me and handing me a few pieces. Soon, we were all munching on it, cracked bits falling to the sidewalk, when the old woman looked at me. "You can't eat those unless you're Jewish," she said.

Maybe she was right; I have to confess that I've never really seen the culinary appeal of these things.  Eli continued with his aggressive campaign of apathy. Still, the old man loved it, mumbling the word "delicious" between bites. "Oh, this makes me wish I had butter. And some salt!"

The matzo guy poked his head out into the unlikely scene. "Look," he said to his coworkers, "it's like Passover out here!"

We said our thank-yous and turned away as some of the matzo guy's friends came up to his window, talking with him about what just happened.  For real, though," he said. "People walk by all the time lookin'. Yo, there be some bangin' chicks lookin' up in here.