A shortage of special kosher-for-Passover margarine is causing dismay in Jewish households across the nation as family cooks discover they can't make many of their traditional Passover meals without it.
Particularly irksome is the absence of kosher-for-Passover stick margarine, an essential ingredient in baking for the weeklong holiday starting at sundown today.
"Margarine-gate, that's what we're calling it," says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union, the leading kosher certification agency.
Some stores in the New York area have been rationing kosher-for-Passover margarine, letting customers buy only a single package. Others are using it as a marketing tool, selling only to those who agree to buy a certain quantity of other items too.
In Dallas, Mona Allen, a mother of four boys, is still desperately looking for enough margarine for the cookie and cake recipes she has perfected for years.
"I bake a lot, because I want to sweeten the holiday that my kids complain about," says Allen. "No matter how many new things I try at meals, they say, 'Yuck, Passover food.'"
Margarine is crucial to kosher cooking because the dietary rules don't allow mixing meat and milk products, such as butter, at a meal. Margarine, made of vegetable oil, can be eaten with meat or milk, and it can be kosher if rabbis oversee production to be sure no dairy products touch the machinery.
That's not good enough for Passover, though. Stricter kosher rules for the holiday forbid corn and legumes such as soy. So Passover margarine is made only from cottonseed oil or palm oil.
But it's a once-a-year product, and a hassle to make. Machinery needs to be broken down and cleaned before the margarine is made to prevent contamination with nonkosher food.
Further discouraging production is a shortage of cottonseed oil that has driven its price way up. Some U.S. farmers deserted cotton to plant corn last year when ethanol production sent corn's price higher, industry officials say.
RAB Holdings Inc., which sells the Manischewitz line of kosher foods, learned in December that Ventura Foods LLC, which makes its best-selling Mother's brand, had gotten out of the Passover-margarine business. Ventura Foods bowed out because the plant was consolidated with others, and "the expense to become kosher certified wasn't perceived to be worth it," says John Kidde, an official there.
The seller of Manischewitz looked hard for a new supplier, but other kosher-food makers weren't eager to rush in. The result is that this year only one U.S. factory is making Passover margarine, Mid-Atlantic Vegetable Shortening Co. of Kearny, N.J.
But Mid-Atlantic makes only tubs and one-pound blocks or bricks, not the easy-to-use stick margarine. The bricks can be crumbly, some cooks say, and the softer margarine used in tubs has a higher water content that throws off recipes.
Mid-Atlantic couldn't fill all of its original orders, much less make up for the absence of the Mother's brand, because it wasn't able to get all the cottonseed oil it wanted.
"Frankly, it is a lot of work and expense for a factory to produce kosher-for-Passover margarine for a short time," says Elefant.
Passover is a lot of work for Jews, too. Those who observe all the requirements must clean their homes of all forbidden foodstuffs and use a different set of dishes and of pots and pans.
Most observant Jewish families were unaware of the scarcity of kosher-for-Passover margarine until they needed it to start baking this week. Passover, which commemorates the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt, is celebrated with two nights of elaborately prepared dinners during which the Exodus story is retold. But strict dietary laws are followed for a week.
Bland, unleavened matzo flour is a staple of the holiday, making Passover cooking something of a sport as practitioners try to get food to taste like everyday fare.
"There are so few really tasty things at Passover that when you find a great recipe and you can't find an ingredient, you despair," says Stephanie Prescott of Dallas, who will serve 25 people during the Passover service, or Seder.
Alita Millen, a Baltimore business owner, had spent years perfecting a recipe for kosher chocolate-chip cookies that taste almost like the Toll House original. She first tried using matzo cake meal, but the cookies came out too grainy and heavy. Then she cut back on the matzo and added potato starch, and her cookies got raves. But now she can't find the stick margarine she needs.
She tracked down the last two packages of block margarine at a kosher supermarket but was sorely disappointed with the results. "The margarine just crumbled," she says. "It was a mess."