Last weekend I went to see the Medieval Haggadah exhibition that’s just opened at the Barcelona History Museum. For the first time since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, eight illuminated Haggadot produced in Catalunya in the 14th & 15th centuries are in their country of origin, after having been smuggled out hundreds of years ago to save them from destruction.
I was hoping one or two of them might be opened to illustrations of a Medieval Catalan Seder table (like the illustration to the right), and that among the foods represented I might spot a mina. It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation. Mina is a meat pie that’s unique to Spanish Jews, essential to our Passover meal, and as significant for us as any ritual element of the Seder. But the why of its importance has been a huge mystery for generations. I grew up without ever hearing any explanation for its presence on the table, only that it must (!) be there. And no wonder: it took me years to unravel the mystery myself, and I had to move to Spain to finally get to the bottom of it. Today I begin to explain it all for you. If pies could talk…
Among my earliest memories of Passover is the fuss we’d make over the mina. Each year, the women in my family prepared it for our Seders with an obsessive reverence, and even as a small child I took note. As much as my mother, aunt, and grandma tended to fuss over all cooking in general, the mina was in a league of its own. If it came out less than perfect, it would be deemed some kind of monumental failure; our Seder meal would be ruined. Ruined!
During our Seders, each time we’d put aside the Haggadot to eat, of all the luscious foods on the table, my eyes always went straight to that savory pie and fixed on it unflinchingly while I waited for everyone to be served. In childhood the fixation was all about eating – mina made well really is delicious. But over time, it turned into a mystical experience. Each year as I stared at the square of pie on my plate, in those few moments I began to feel as if I were being drawn right into it and backwards in time, not to the Exodus or the Ottoman Empire, but to Medieval Spain – vague, dim, distant. Something was forming in my consciusness. With each passing year my sense of some deeply buried memory, some inner “knowing” that I couldn’t describe, kept increasing until one year I had an actual vision. Staring into the mina I saw a tiny, lively scene: my smiling ancestors in jewel-toned medieval clothes, seated together around a table and enjoying their Seder meal. Talk about startling! That vision blew my mind. It also confirmed that mina was the keeper of some very important detail of our history in Spain. In that moment I determined to learn what it was one day, whatever it might take.
My favorite meat pie became such an obsession of mine that eventually I moved to Spain and vowed not to leave without discovering all there was to know about it. (Hey, people are spurred to action by stranger obsessions).
As it turned out, it was fairly easy to identify an early mina recipe from a 13th century cookbook. Despite some minor differences from our version, the ingredients and instructions were unmistakable. Filling in the details took more time. In the centuries that followed, the Jewish meat pie evolved with advances in Jewish culinary arts, eventually becoming one of the most popular foods throughout Spain. Jewish meat pies were so much a part of the fabric of daily life, they were depicted in famous paintings and literature from all over the country, and referenced in foreign cookbooks of the era as a Spanish dish.
Then, quite suddenly they vanished, though not when you’d think, not in 1492.
By the late 17th century the Inquisition had done such a thorough job eradicating all apparent traces of Judaism from Spanish society, its administrators found themselves faced with the very real possibility of unemployment. To justify their jobs continuing, they launched aggressive new campaigns, most famously in Mallorca and the Americas, where there were some particularly vicious persecutions. (Not that it’s nice anywhere to be burned at the stake). On the Peninsula, King Carlos II, the last descendant of Isabel and Ferdinand, signed a revised version of a centuries-old food law that reflected the Inquisition’s intricate knowledge of Jewish dietary laws, work laws, and even cultural preferences in taste, to target a single recipe: the meat pie.
In addition to long established laws requiring bacon be added to the meat and lard to the dough (which would render them each unkosher), the new law spelled out in exacting detail which kind of meat must be used (only beef), the day of the week on which the animal it came from was to be slaughtered (Saturday), the seasonings (no cinnamon, a “Jewish” spice), in what state it must go into the oven (raw, which would ensure blood getting into the dough), etc. And if there were any doubt as to whether mina by then was also already a Passover dish, that was cleared up upon reading that the dough was to be made only from spring wheat (which is forbidden at Passover).
To the Inquisition, mina – meat pie – was the single most threatening remnant of Jewish food. It was also standard fare throughout Spain.
They went after it with a vengeance. By law the pie could now only be made to these exacting specifications, plus a few more, each of which was designed to render the pie as ritually and culturally non-Jewish as possible. The slightest violations were punished with astronomical fines (think king’s ransom), banishment, or both.
Talk about beating a dead horse. These laws are maniacal in their obsessive overkill, so methodically exacting and severe, that when I first came across them I was dumbstruck. Then I just felt very, very sad.
That was several years ago. Now, a fast forward back to this week.
In reaction to a post I wrote last year about Spain’s Sephardic citizenship law, a self-described Spanish Catholic wrote me last week to defend the Spanish people, saying I shouldn’t think they’re all anti-Semites. Which of course I don’t. It was hard to tell whether his closing remark – “I am sorry, it should not have happened. Now we can not change the past, let’s look forward.”- was meant to be kind or condescending. Perhaps both.
Without going into all the details of his letter, it was clear to me either way that there’s a lot he doesn’t understand about bigotry, including his own, or that it was a hopeful piece I’d written, not an angry one. That letter begged such a lengthy and thoughtful response, I put it aside to mull over. In the meantime, the Haggadah exhibition opened in Barcelona, and off I went to see it.
THE CATALAN HAGGADAH EXHIBITION
The eight manuscripts are displayed inside small glass cases placed about a great hall. Some are as lavish and beautiful as I’d hoped they would be, others less so. But each one seems so alive, it’s easy to imagine their being held and read aloud and viewed with delight by everyone at the table. For all I know, my own ancestors may have held one of those books. It’s incredibly moving to see pages stained with drops of wine and oil – signs of the holiday’s good food and merriment – and so refreshing to be able to enjoy tangible evidence of a joyous side of Jewish history on Spanish soil. The illustrations were exactly like the scene I’d seen come to life in my mind’s eye so many years ago. It was exhilarating.
So how weird, with this happy, loving vibe I had going on – I couldn’t stop smiling! – that before long I began to feel a heaviness all around me. The exhibition hall is spacious and has two-story ceilings, so I could hardly write the sensation off to a lack of air or space. I felt no sense of panic or dread or dizziness, just a growing, psychic weight working against me that became so oppressive, it felt as if there were literally something pressing down on my head and shoulders and pushing me around. What was in this room, I wondered. Despite my best effort to shake off the sensation, it grew stronger. Soon I was nearly swooning under the weight of it, my legs were trembling, and I could barely concentrate on the beautiful books I’d come to see. Everyone else around me seemed fine.
I stepped out to the lobby to get some air. My head cleared and the heaviness passed, but I still felt wobbly, so I went outside. And there I discovered where I’d just been, and the source of my psychic disturbance: the Medieval Catalan Haggadah exhibition is housed in the Inquisition Hall of Barcelona. Its administration and trials were carried out in that very hall for centuries. And the cavernous hall, a wing of the old royal palace, was built much earlier, in the mid-1300’s – precisely when these Haggadot were produced.
That’s a lot of irony to take in at once. Again while pursuing my Spanish heritage, I was dumbstruck. But I found my answer to that letter I’d been sitting on, which is this:
Spanish Jews don’t hang on to our history like a bunch of neurotics rehashing slights. We don’t do it so you should feel uncomfortable, though if what I choose to write about makes you so uncomfortable that you’d rather I just drop it and “look forward,” why not look inward and ask yourself why that is?
My ancestral experience forms the foundation of who I am. I carry it in my cells, in my DNA. I embrace it with love, pride, compassion, and deep respect for those who came before me. I know who I am.
I’m Jewish. We don’t believe in forgetting history because it’s convenient or comfortable. We believe in learning it, owning it, and, when necessary, owning up to it. We do the hard work. You can’t reduce a long dark chapter to a comfortable footnote, and anyone who suggests we just forget the past – anyone’s past – and simply “look forward” is missing the point. How can you know where forward is if you don’t know where you’ve been?
Spanish Jews know where we’ve been, and who we are, and we’re not interested in forgetting. In fact today, Passover, everyone’s favorite Jewish holiday, Jewish people everywhere on the planet will celebrate by retelling a three thousand year old story – the very same story that’s in those 500-year-old books on display now in the Barcelona Inquisition Hall – about how we gained our freedom. Then we’ll eat delicious food and drink good wine and laugh and sing and have a great time. And those of us whose ancestors were kicked out of Spain will serve a Spanish meat pie, to remember that story, too.
There. That’s my beef.
I haven’t forgotten I want to explain some recipe names.
Why the pie is called mina I’ll explain in a post of its own, because it’s another good story.
But you might know that mina also goes by some other names, too: megina, méguena, maena, mejanna, et al. These variants are used among Sephardim whose ancestors emigrated to Maghreb, the coast of North Africa, and it’s clear they share some root word in Arabic. That word has nothing to do with ‘mina’ the word, but it does refer to the same pie and to our history. Αfter much, much searching and consulting and cross checking (Arabic is a large and complex body of languages!), I found the word, which is majjanna. It means “free.”
Is it me? When I found that out, I cried.
Mina recipes were trendy a few years ago, real Seder table darlings for a handful of Passover seasons. Suddenly every Ashkenazi was an expert on the mouthwatering ground beef pie my family has made forever, trotting out some kind of new and improved version – spinach, lamb, chicken, artichoke, mushroom, anything but beef. It all felt so very wrong. When I had to come up with a chicken mina recipe for a newspaper because they’d “already done the beef one”, it went so against my sensibility I cringed. (I got past it by reminding myself Passover lasts a week and not every recipe need be for the Seder itself, or even for the holiday).
Unless you’re Sephardic, serving mina at Passover is sooo last season now. But today my family – my mother, her sister, my siblings, my niece and nephew, my many cousins all over the globe – will do what we’ve done for more than half a millennium. We will remember and honor our Iberian ancestors’ courage and sacrifice, and their fierce determination to make sure future generations could feel free enough to eat a beef pie without fearing for their lives – by eating a beef pie called freedom.
Now they know why, and so do you.
Have a beautiful, joyous, Happy Passover. Hag Pesach Sameach.