Russ and Daughters Press
NPR: The Bryant Park Project
April 4, 2008
A Passover Without Those Six-Sided Crackers
The Bryant Park Project, April 8, 2008 · Think of a Halloween without candy corn. Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce. Easter without Peeps. That's what's happening: After 68 years of continuous production, Tam Tams will not be available for Passover this year.
Native New Yorker Niki Russ Federman is part of the fourth generation to run her family's store, Russ and Daughters, on Manhattan's Houston Street. This is the store's busy season, when it's preparing countless orders for Passover, which starts next weekend. But one thing's missing, Federman says.
"A customer yesterday said he was going on strike from Passover if there weren't going to be any Tam Tams."
The Tam Tam, for those who don't know, is a six-sided matzo cracker that has long been part of Jewish holiday tradition, especially around Passover, when matzo is the only option in the bread department. According to reports that first surfaced in the New Jersey Jewish News in late February, RAB Food Group, which owns the Manischewitz brand, encountered delays after installing a high-tech oven in its new facility in Newark, N.J.
"We didn't know about it until we went to place our order," Federman says. "We made subsequent calls. ... It sounds like a technical glitch. They couldn't get the new oven up and running. So, no Tam Tams."
It's true: BPP staffers could find no dusty boxes of last year's crackers in New York City. (A few boxes are being sold on eBay. A rabbi in Michigan is selling three — bidding starts at $10 — and plans to give the proceeds to an organization that fights hunger.)
"We have nothing left over," Federman says, confirming the state of things — even at venerable Russ and Daughters. "I've heard stories of black-market Tam Tams."
Why are the foods integral? "It's all about the food you can and can't eat," Federman says. The Passover holiday commemorates the Jews' flight from Egypt, where they were slaves. Their departure was so abrupt, the story goes, that they could only bring unleavened bread. So, during Passover, no leavened products are allowed. "It's not really a gastronomic holiday," Federman says, pointing out that the truly observant even avoid corn syrup and other products.
Some people can't imagine this time without Tam Tams, she says. "Holidays such as Passover, when you put history and tradition and food all together, it's a really powerful thing." She adds, "Luckily we haven't had anyone freak out on us."
A Manischewitz spokesperson told The New York Times that Tam Tams will be back on shelves by late April or early May.
Federman says the shortage will not prevent Jews from observing Passover, and plenty of other matzo products are available. "Tam tams are really more like Jewish Ritz crackers," she says.
Asked what encouraged her to become a part of the family business, Federman talked about things more eternal than crackers. "Russ and Daughters has been a fixture in New York since 1914," she says. "It was started by my great-grandfather, who had a pushcart on the Lower East Side of New York. I think the fact that we've stayed a business — and stayed a family-run business — is really something special. It took me doing other things to realize how important small, historic, family-run businesses are, especially in a place like New York."
And there are other perks. "I eat well, too. I eat salmon and caviar every day."
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