Our ancestors never ate “flat, crisp matzah” until the 19th century. What they ate looked very similar to a pita. She amasses a lot of proof. ( I had only head of the first one- Hillel folding the matzah, lamb and marror together).
We know this to be true for several reasons, the first of which is the “korekh” component of the seder. “Korekh,” which means to roll up or bend around, is what we are supposed to do when remembering Hillel and making the infamous “Hillel sandwich.” Since we cannot roll massa that is crisp, we must assume that massa must be pliable.
Second, the Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 7a suggests that bread and massa could be easily confused: “Rabbah the son of R. Huna said in the name of Rab: If a moldy loaf [is found during Pesah in a bread bin and we are uncertain whether it is bread or massa], if the majority of loaves [in the bin] are massait is permitted [because we assume it to be like the majority].” The massa currently sold ubiquitously in stores, however, never threatens to grow mold, no matter how hard you foster the right conditions. Soft massa, on the other hand, easily does.
Third, later sources also to refer to massa as soft, and Ashkenazi Jews cannot wash away this fact by claiming that soft massa was a Sepharadi custom. For example, the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote that massa should be made thinner than the tefah (around 3 inches) recommended in the Babylonian Talmud, while the Chafetz Chaim advised that massa be made “soft as a sponge” (Mishna Berura, Orach Haim 486). In “The Laws of Baking Massa,” the Shulchan Aruch deems baking to be sufficient when “no threads can be pulled from it.” Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University and halakhic advisor for the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union, stated clearly that there is no custom that prohibits Ashkenazi Jews from eating soft massa.
She attributed today’s cardboard matzah to the “its industrial production beginning in the 1800s.” However I think there are other, intertwined reasons as well.
If you bake your own matzah freshly even with the strict “18 minutes from flour-water contact” to end of baking rule, it is not hard and cracker like. I know this because our family has baked matzah (when we did it it was with Passover flour) at a koshered outdoor pizza oven at the annual matzah bake in Toronto. The matzah comes out soft and chewy but turns stale and hard in few days.
I also noticed recipes for home made matzah in one of my favourite cook books, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, I: Traditional Recipes and Menus and a Memoir of a Vanished Way of Life by Edda Servi Machlin. She also includes stories and cultural information about the Roman Jews (who are neither Ashkeanzi/Sepharadi because they existed before split). She recounts how everyone used to make their matzah at home. Her recipes also call for using oil or sweet wine instead of water and for the 18 minutes applying to the baking time and not the total contact time. She describes how children loved matzah and loved being involved in baking and eating it.
Even before industrialization, worries about kashrut and strictness lead many Eastern European communities to allow only the town baker to make matzot. People were not trusted to do it in their homes. This created a situation where the industrialization was possible and its inferior product was accepted by the community because they had already lost contact with the visceral tastes and knowledge of what used to be a home-centred mitzvah. And this is what we lose when we worry more about halacha then the actual mitzvot.
So I say, fight the cardboard and crumbs and take back matzah!!
Make your own. ( At home need a very hot oven, passover flour and speedy hands if you want it to be traditionally kosher. Or commandeer an outdoor bread oven and kosher it). One batch is enough for putting out at your seder and for the experience.