I mean, it’s not really chauvinistic to admit when something is without question and beyond doubt just the very best, right? This is something that can be tested empirically. Blind taste test, right?
Well, actually not. There’s the nostalgia factor. People are attached to family traditions, especially with regard to foods, and they become something that cannot be questioned, and of course beyond doubt the very best. My daughter-in-law, for example makes something for Thanksgiving that, well, it’s just not Thanksgiving without it: cranberry sauce jello mold. Something I’d never in my life heard of, but okay. Tradition’s tradition. And now in my son’s household, that jello thing will be passed on for generations to come.
My problem with it? Oh nothing. It’s just not Sephardic.
So. Now that’s chauvinism.
But this, this is different. After all, why should Sephardim complain about Thanksgiving traditions? I mean, the country is just teeming with Ashkenazim. Don’t mind us, we Sephardim are just the first Jews ever to wash up onto the American shores. And build the first synagogue here. Rhode Island. The Touro synagogue in Newport. It’s true. You can Google it. Sephardim. Not Woody Allen Jews at all. We don’t have a sense of humor. Not about this.
Not about charoset.
Apples and honey and walnuts, oh my. Do you think you could hold the pyramids together with that weak and watery stuff? Does it look or taste anything like something that comes from the Middle East, especially from ancient times?
Our charoset reeks of authenticity, she said reeking of more chauvinism. This stuff could probably mortar half the ruins of the ancient world. And inebriate more than half their workers.
I make our Sephardi charoset with a bottle of fine Merlot. Use the whole bottle if you’re making a lot. At our house we make a lot — since if any is left over, it gets taken home by almost everyone who isn’t all Pesached out by then.
The best thing to do with charoset is to make a Hillel Sandwich. Although my guess is that it’s really a Shammai Sandwich, and that Shammai got shafted again for credit. Intellectual property issue — Hillel got the patent.
With one bite, the Hillel Sandwich gives you everything you want to know about Pesach. The Sandwich consists of matzah, maror, and charoset. Right there, you’ve got it — the ‘bread of affliction’ (as it is known) made in haste and therefore unyeasted as our ancestors were fleeing Mubarak’s Egypt. Maror (see the previous post), which gives you the whole eye-watering, punch in the gut bitterness of (either or both) freedom and bondage. And charoset — the binding mortar, and sweetness of labor of our ancient ancestors.
Yes, I said the sweetness of labor — not the sweetness of liberty. My grandpa was a union organizer in the 1930s. He was very clear on this point.
Use large, soft, meaty medjoul dates (American spelling: medjool). Then think about this: You’re using the fruit of the Tree of Life itself. To tell the truth, I don’t think we can claim credit for the Tree of Life. The Akkadians had it first. And at Knossos on Crete, seals found there make it clear that the real Tree of Life was a cactus, brought down from the heavens by the Vegetation Goddess (you know — the one with a cat sitting on her head). My vote’s with the Akkadians.
Be that as it may, the medjouls are just plain the yummiest. And also the easiest to work with.
Take a sharp knife. Slit each date. Remove the pit and the little knobby thing at the end. Buying already pitted dates means you’re lazy and would not have survived a day as a laborer in Ancient Egypt. And that you’re not in touch with the spirit of suffering in order to feel your liberation.
Big glass bowl. Masher.
Again, please please don’t use a machine to do your labor.
A.D. Gordon created an entire religious tradition out of appreciation of our own physical labor. דין העבודה Din ha-avodah. Michael Pollan would certainly agree, if you’ve read his recent Food Rules. More labor is a good thing. We Americans need it.
Start mashing. By hand. It’s hard. Do it anyway.
A.D. Gordon was just a clerk until his feet touched the soil of the Holy Land. He reached down and picked up a handful of soil — and had an epiphany. You couldn’t just say things like ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ as if it were about architecture and holy places that we’ve built. The holiness is in the soil itself. The most spiritual connection we could have to the ‘Holy Land’ — is to focus on the land itself. Pick up a spade, and get to work. Grow something. Get that dirt under your nails. Renew the land and watch what it can do —
Add some wine. Keep mashing. Don’t touch those walnuts!
I use pecans, to tell the truth. I’m allergic to walnuts. Lots of people are. Walnuts can make the edges of your tongue burn. Not a thrill. Pecans — no problem.
Add more wine. Mix. You need enough wine until your charoset-to-be moves easily around the bowl when you use your wooden spoon. Yah. Go switch spoons.
It should not be liquid! If you do that, you’re no better than the Ashkenazim making applesauce.
Take a hammer — or a wooden rolling pin — and bang on your (shelled) walnuts or pecans (yes, shell them yourself) as they sit tidily tucked into a kitchen towel. Keep banging. It’s good for you. Besides, who wants packaged nut-pieces all uniform and boring to the tongue? Texture matters. The problem with adding the nuts too soon is that they start to break down and get yucky. I learned this one year when my mother-in-law tossed in the pecans right at the beginning of the process. The results were embarrassing. I did not have a meltdown. I swear.
Gently. Yes, gently, fold in the pecans. Suddenly your charoset is the right consistency.
If you’ve made enough, then in addition to what goes on your seder plate (you’ll need at least double your usual amount, since it disappears fast) — should go into little jars for people to take home with them. If you make some early, mail some jars to your kids in Brooklyn if they didn’t make their own Sephardi charoset on time.
This is not my mother’s charoset. She throws everything at it. Figs, currents, sometimes honey. Sometimes cinammon — the works. My research shows me that more is less. A meditative purity counts.
As with yaprakas (Sephardi stuffed grape leaves — of course, the very best, though possibly ties with Armenian dolmas), I’ve gotten my charoset down to a Zen koan. Only three ingredients, carefully combined. An artful meditation in the religion of labor.
Where does the hashisha candy come in? In regions where wine is haram, substituting hashish will give your charoset a nice kick. Good idea to make hashisha candy with some honey, so it’s not too dry. Not too much. Roll little balls of your mixture. Pit’om! Transubstantiation: you’ve got yourself an entheogen. (I’m not recommending hashisha candy, by the way, I think it’s overkill. This is just informational. You should know that it’s a cousin).
Either way, Sephardi charoset is a powerful mixture. Mix it with Ashkenazi maror for a syncretic kick, place them together on your piece of matzah. One Hillel Sandwich, there you are.
One bite — and there it is, the essence of Pesach. The Tree of LIfe. The Religion of Labor. Altered States…
Don’t let anyone drive home.