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the shikse makes charoset—and Elijah likes it

I had the chutzpah to challenge Mira to a charoset-off. Uff da.

Mira’s post on charoset was funny as hell, and her charoset sounds great, but I couldn’t stop myself from challenging her charoset. She’s invited me and my wife, Victoria, to a seder at Beit Malkhut (West, her house in San Francisco, as opposed to East, my house in Oakland). I offered to make my charoset, and she agreed, as long as I also promised to make something else that isn’t charoset.

I’ve signed up for two of my seder specialties, matzoh ball soup and charoset.

Yes, shikses can have seder specialties. It so happens that I quite like charoset and boiled eggs and horseradish and gefilte fish and all those other Ashkenaz favorites that Mira describes as “vile” and “muck” and “watery.” I suppose I owe this most directly to having been invited to a bunch of seders given by Ashkenazim, or maybe I owe it to my artifactual memories. If Jung is right about our collective unconscious and I’m right about my Prussian great-gramma (mom’s mom’s mom) having been Jewish, then I’m technically Ashkenaz myself and doomed to liking the vile, watery muck.

As I told Mira, it might not match Sephardi cuisine, but by my Norwegian-German heritage’s standards, Ashkenaz vile, watery muck is highly flavorful, exotic stuff.

I make a pretty yummy matzoh kugel, too (mine’s kind of a Norwegian lasagne-style custardy dessert), and I dearly love matzobrei. So, when this time of year rolls around and I start seeing the components in the special Passover display at the grocery store, I stock up, and often I end up throwing a bit of a seder. Many times it’s just been me and Elijah, because I was either single or a vacation-widow at the time. I start out just making a meal with some of the favorites, and before you know it, I’ve got a head of steam up and I’m doing it up right. Once I’ve gone to all that trouble, it seems silly not to review the haggadah, so I read at dinner. For years it was the Maxwell House Haggadah, because I kept forgetting to look for a better one.

Elijah was a regular at my seders for years. He’s dead now, may he rest in peace, but Elijah—for those of you who are still waiting—came back to earth for just shy of 15 years in the form of my grey boy, Norton the Anthology of Cats. I mean, I’m pretty sure he was Elijah. He kept sitting down at Elijah’s place, eating Elijah’s gefilte fish, and sniffing at Elijah’s wine. What more evidence do we need? One year he got a bit too curious and singed his whiskers on the candles, too, but I’m not sure whether to attribute that to Elijah.

Now, I know better than to try to compete with Mira’s Sephardi charoset with an Ashkenaz recipe, and in fact when I issued the challenge, I had a Sephardi recipe in mind. I described it as “killer charoset.”

Mira replied skeptically, asking if it was Sephardi. I replied, “Of course it is—I told you it was killer, didn’t i?”

She liked that answer but still seemed to doubt my claims.

Yesterday, after remarking upon my delight over her charoset post—who wouldn’t love a woman who can work AD Gordon, Sephardi jingoism, syncretism, family mishegas, anti-Cuisinart-ism, and walnut allergies into an essay purporting to be a recipe?—I asked her, “But what if you like mine better?”

She blinked.

I gulped.

She asked, “Did you just say that? Did you just challenge me to a charoset-off?”

Um, yeah…

Pride goeth before the muck, I fear.

I looked up that recipe I remembered liking so much a few years back at our last Seder, which was a combination Seder and Easter Dinner for St Olaf College alumni friends, which we preceded with a Lutheran hymn sing because we had a critical mass of musically-inclined guests; the menu included braised Easter bunny; and we did a nearly complete reading of the haggadah before everyone got distracted in debate about some point or another and we never quite wandered back to finish it up.

About that recipe, though. It was fantastic. But not wholly Sephardi-looking, it turns out. Looks like a bit of an amalgam of Ashkenaz and Sephardi charoset notions to me, and of course I did do my Nordic thing to it also. I’m a tamperer. I’ll write it up later this week when I make this year’s version of it.

I was worried, though, so I cast my eyes on the next charoset recipe, facing page. Yemeni. Nothing mucky or watery about it. Worth a try, right?

Why not?

[amazon_image id=”0688155901″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The New York Times Passover Cookbook : More Than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Chefs and Writers[/amazon_image]

So here it is—my version of Ruth Messinger’s Yemenite Haroseth, from the [amazon_link id=”0688155901″ target=”_blank” ]The New York Times Passover Cookbook : More Than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Chefs and Writers[/amazon_link].

  • 24 dried figs
  • 24 pitted dates (I used dried—we had them sitting around)
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds (I used roasted Japanese white sesame seeds, and it was more like a cup)
  • 4 t honey (well, why not 4 T? because see below about cayenne…)
  • 2 t ground ginger (but wouldn’t 2 T of crystallized ginger be better?)
  • 1/2 t ground coriander (oh, please—anything less than 2 t of coriander is just teasing)
  • 1/4 t cayenne (hmm… I think it must have been more like 1/2–1 t… it’s not like I measure anything)

Buzz up the first figs and dates “to a sticky paste” in the Cuisinart. (But I disagree—just get them good and chopped up. Paste is gross. Chewable texture is important—Mira’s right about that. Buzz up the ginger, too.)

Put those in a bowl and mix in the rest. Cover and store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

(Except we’re not done yet. It’s not sticky enough yet, and it doesn’t have any wine or booze. That can’t be right. Since this recipe doesn’t have anything in the prune or grape family, I decided to go with a jolt of pelinka, the Romanian homemade firewater that my Romanian friends describe as “90% alcohol and 10% alcohol.” It’s basically a plum brandy, always homemade or bought in used plastic soda bottles from a guy in a truck parked by the side of the road outside town.)

Potent stuff! My eyes started watering after I tasted it. I sneezed several times.

It’s got a week to meld and mellow.

Look out, Mira. Your charoset sounds delicious, but it’s in trouble.

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

6 replies on “the shikse makes charoset—and Elijah likes it”

Can you feel me shudder?

a) “I looked up the recipe.” Enough said. If you’re following a recipe, my ancestors are having a giggle already. Technically, you’ll be fine — but there’ll be no nona and nonu (aka popu — according to Mrs Tz) in there to make it right. No ancestors? Not Sephardi. Just a technical follow-the-dots. Where’s that oral tradition?

b) We do Spanish pride and Sephardi chauvinism like nobody’s business. But here, our challenge will be on Ashkenazi tastebuds, after all — they’re all gonna love your charoset!

c) Did you just put braised Easter bunny into a post about charoset?

d) I think I’m the one who speculated that yours might be better! I’ve pared mine down to a less extravagant meeting of the essential parts. My mother’s is a wild eccentric ride that brings tears of beauty to the eyes. My charoset is an exercise in peasant modesty and restraint by comparison.

e) You will win. But I’ll maintain the ethnic high ground.

f) Who couldn’t be impressed by a Nordic shikse with this amount of Ashkenazi chutzpah?

g) Glad you liked my charoset post. Let the challenge begin!

h) Oh! I can’t believe it. You’re even going to use a Cuisinart, aren’t you, she said in horror.

a) If you want oral tradition and ethnic authenticity, you do not invite a Norwegian-German shikse to your seder.

If you want nona and nonu, I could make a bland Norwegian potato flatbread called lefse (yes, from scratch, no recipe, by hand) that isn’t technically leavened, but it’s so soft and tasty when spread thickly with nice, cold Danish butter and rolled up, you’d swear it’s chametz. One of these days I’ll write about learning how to make lefse by watching my grumpy gramma (my grumpy grampa’s wife) while I was supposed to be napping. Oh, and of course I’d bring some pig casings filled with all kinds of ground treyf. And I’ll use power tools to make both of them. My grammas believed in power tools.

b) But that’s not the challenge. I asked what if you like mine better?

c) Did you just put cranberry Jell-O mold in yours?

d) Well, I can do peasant modesty and restraint, but you’ve heard about what Norwegians do to cod, haven’t you?

e) If you’re maintaining the ethnic high ground, neither of my charosets have a chance. They’re both from Bay Area chefs in that—shudder!—cookbook, and I tamper with both recipes.

f) Who couldn’t love a Sephardi bigot who appreciates shikse chutzpah?

g) Game on, partner!

h) I can’t believe you’re going to mash a huge bowl of dates by hand. I’ll rub your shoulders when I finish sharpening your knives.

a) is a good one! Thank you for that. Authenticity demands that the Norwegian-German shikse — and everyone / anyone else be invited to our Seder! The whole point (well, one of them, anyway) is that the door is open. I do believe I wrote a recent post about this. And if you stay for the meal or thirty-three years, the door is still open. My family has always had a diverse crowd at Pesach. My favorite of which was my mom’s best friend, Sister Mary Luke, a nun who taught art and art history at Holy Names College.

b) I’m fine with liking yours best. If you’re fine admitting mine is (if you feel that way). This debate entered into my lecture tonight on nativistic movements. My argument centered around the inclusion or exclusion of dill in yaprakas (stuffed grape leaves). I prefer it with dill sometimes — but the inclusion makes the dish Armenian rather than Sephardi. American answer: who cares?

c) Yes!

d) I’ve heard, but could it really be as awful as I’ve heard? Why would humans do that? Is this a martyr / suffering cuisine by any chance? At any rate, I wouldn’t mind experiencing it for myself, since we anthropologists don’t like to go on hearsay. Maybe everybody’s wrong — and there’s this whole cultural explanation and nuance that must be tasted to understand. (Tasted with stories supplied). Warning, however: I have a strong gag reflex.

e) Ethnic high grounds have caused great sorrow in the world. The rational side of me (which exists when I’m not cooking for Pesach) thinks we should chuck ethnic pride in favor of humanism. Or better yet, animism.

f) Sephardi werewolf: the bigotry arises not on the full moon, however, but midway through the month of Nisan and lasts until we’re a third of the way through the Haggadah, when I just can’t stand it anymore.

g) Game on!

h) Uch. The knife sharpening. Do we have to?

a) This is why your seder is where I want to be on Saturday.

b) I expect I probably will like yours best, even though I’ve never been wild about dates. Yes to dill, of course—no good Norwegian could feel otherwise on that point.

d) It’s even worse. It’s the peace of cod that passes understanding. You’re hereby invited to our next smørgåsbord, where you can taste the stuff for yourself. Ugh.

h) Yes. Sharp knives are safe knives.

I once worked with a Norwegian mathematician. I asked him about the cod thing… He claimed it was invented by Swedes who had the good sense to forget about it.

Well, we did the ultimate taste test: my Sephardi mother.

The three samples of charoset were:

Erin’s Yemeni charoset
Erin’s Ashkenazi syncretic charoset
Mira’s Sephardi charoset

My mom thought the Yemeni charoset felt like brave souls (can’t remember her exact words for some reason).

I’m not sure she even tasted the weak-colored Ashkenazi charoset at all.

She looked at mine, as declared it as it should be. That was the normative charoset — which means that I hadn’t strayed too far afield. Though she did make one correction that I hope I remember to heed next year.

She did not judge them. But in my opinion, the Yemeni charoset wins. not necessarily for taste, but for it’s take on bravery. And for its ability to give us visions of that beautiful land.

Erin, thank you! A worthy competition, indeed.

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