A bottle of mescal and an afikomen hidden in the hostess’ underwear drawer figure more prominently than the taste of the wine in my memories of the first Passover Seder I attended.
Having grown up Protestant in Fayetteville, I knew nothing of the intricacies of the Seder ritual. But fortune smiled on me when I was a young reporter at my hometown paper and sent me a co-worker who was Jewish, hospitable and blessed with a vibrant sense of humor. Yana Ginburg Samberg was away from her family on Passover that year, so she invited a rowdy group of us to celebrate Seder with her.
I do remember that there were bitter herbs, there was brisket, there was matzo, and, of course, there was wine.
“You got to get the four glasses in or it’s not a kosher Seder,” Yana reminded me when I called her to reminisce. “I may have gotten one bottle of Manischewitz just because I wanted to be mean … I tried to give you guys an appreciation of my own personal torture.”
This was the mid-1990s, long before any sort of kosher wine other than Manischewitz was widely available, so curating a good kosher wine list wasn’t a realistic priority. Today’s wine landscape is vastly improved, with plenty of kosher choices available at wine shops and even some grocery stores. At the time, I knew better than to bring Manischewitz, but I wasn’t sure what the best alternative was. On a whim, I presented our hostess with a bottle of mescal, a gift from a friend who had just returned from a trip to Tijuana.
Having spent many a Seder dinner squirming in her chair, Yana knew her guests would need help making it through. At some point during the proceedings, a treasure hunt ensued, involving about eight adults poking around her 600-square-foot-apartment to find half a matzo, which she had squirreled away in her dresser. This hunt, the search for the afikomen, which occurs at the end of the dinner, is meant as a device to keep children awake during the long meal service.
“We did the order of the Seder but a truncated story and not as much singing on the back end,” Yana recalled. “What really kills you at the end is the singing. When you’re 8 or 9 or 10 and you’re at someone’s house in itchy, nice Sunday clothes – unless they have a basement with a really tricked out game room, you’re one piece of matzo away from meshuga.”
After the afikomen hunt came the less-traditional treat of mescal. None of us had ever seen a bottle of potable liquor with a worm in it anywhere outside of a Warner Bros. cartoon, and as the evening wore on, it became clear that someone was going to get to the bottom of it. Our fellow reporters took turns drinking from the bottle until one of them caught the little bugger in his teeth.
Musing on this two decades hence, we figured that because the mescal was grain-free liquor, it was Passover appropriate. The worm – probably not so much.
“That one might give the rabbis something to argue about,” Yana said.
She said she takes heart in the fact that if we were to re-enact our Seder of yore, the greater availability of kosher wine would vastly enhance the menu. For one thing, it means improved options for cooking wine, which is a revolution for serious cooks who want to dress up a pricey brisket. You’re not going to use Manischewitz to braise a $70 cut of meat, after all.
“It means,” Yana said, “that you’re not sitting around with your in-laws sipping something that tastes like cough syrup like in the old days.”
And as a guest it means you’ve got no excuse for showing up with a bottle of mescal. Unless your Seder host is as cool as mine.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.
With greater variety comes greater responsibility – to make a good choice. Golan Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent example of the mid-price kosher wines on the market. With flavors of stone fruit, vanilla and black pepper, it pairs well with braised meats like brisket and stands up to bitter herbs and matzo as well.