Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Adler with great-grandfather Aron & grandfather Irving Streit
Alan Adler, a co-owner of Streit's Matzo factory and great-grandson of founders Aron and Nettie Streit, was kind enough to give me an early-morning tour of the factory, which I'd been wanting to do since I heard the news that Streit's will be moving out of the Lower East Side.
At 7:00 a.m., the bakery is already churning out sheets of matzo. In the basement, silos pump flour up through the building and big heaters stoke the ovens. Everything is covered with soft white powder and the air smells vaguely like a grandmother's pantry. The ceiling is a circuitboard of pipes. "The whole building is like a Rube Goldberg device," said Mr. Adler.
A manual damper system balances the heat in the oven's long hulk, into which a sheet of uncooked matzo streams after being poked by a comb-like device that makes holes in the dough to keep it from rising. Rabbis are on hand to ensure all is kosher throughout the entire process. We asked a rabbi if matzo could be kosher without holes. He said no, because then it might not be cooked straight through and it must be unleavened. Puffy matzo isn't kosher. A customer once wrote in to complain, "Your matzo is hard and dry." Mr. Adler shrugged, "I don't know what she expected." Matzo soft and moist?
Hard and dry is the way it should be. But it's a delicate balance. At the oven's end, where bakers do the picking (breaking the matzo and loading it onto traveling baskets), Mr. Adler pulled a few chunks of broken matzo from a bucket, where it goes to be recycled into matzo meal. He handed a piece to me and took a taste, which he does periodically. "A little heavy," he concluded to the bakers, "tastes a little thick." Matzo, he told me, should be crispy. This batch would need some adjusting.
Cooling baskets circle and criss-cross the building on a moving chain. It is a joy to watch them disappear through doorways and ceilings, while others appear, swinging as they go. We ducked our heads to avoid them and watched the matzos get packed into boxes for shipping out across the country.
Mr. Adler recalls his childhood in the factory, back when people stood on line to get fresh matzo. But things have changed. One of the reasons Streit's is moving from this location is because the building is 10 feet too short to accommodate modern equipment. "If we could get modern equipment in here," said Mr. Adler, "then maybe we'd stay."
Irving Streit with rabbis
If they move to Jersey, I asked, will the matzos taste the same? New York City water is an important ingredient. Mr. Adler assured me they would test the water of the new site, first carrying a truckful back to the Lower East Side to run it through a batch. And if it doesn't have that Streit's taste, I wondered, would sub-par Jersey water force them to stay? There's no chance of that, not in this age of science.
"Our engineer assures me we can get the water exactly the way we want it," he said, "through a process of reverse osmosis." Reverse osmosis? Doesn't sound kosher to me. I guess Streit's will have to stay.