In one of the Talmudic commentaries on the Megillah, we find the following words: “Rava said: On Purim it is a man’s duty to mellow himself with wine until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’”
A pretty clear injunction passed down by the sages that Purim is a time to celebrate and, even, inebriate! Historically, it has not been the habit of Jews to over-indulge, as is illustrated by this famous joke told about the entertainment choices of Jews and Gentiles: “After going out to the theater, a Gentile will ask the group, ‘Would you like to go out for a drink?’ whereas with a Jewish host the query will naturally be, ‘So, have you eaten?’”
Liquor bought for family celebrations will often gather dust on the shelf until the next big occasion, and wine, while always blessed for the Sabbath, has traditionally been seen more as centered on ritual and not necessarily for daily indulgence.
Purim, certainly, is seen as a holiday not just for a kiddush or a toast but for a few joyous, sustaining glasses while reading the “whole Megillah” until dawn. And to that end (and for other hospitable and auspicious times), Jews have developed a variety of alcoholic indulgences.
Ashkenazim have long made wine at home from whatever fruits were available, since kosher wines — necessarily made only by practicing Jews — were often in short supply where the commercial wines were made only by Gentiles.
My mother, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1920s, fondly describes her mother making the Shabbos wines in their kitchen from the famous concord grapes brought to the Jewish market from upstate New York.
The sweet style of my grandmother’s wines may have come from the flavor of her own grandmother’s, made when raisins were the fruits of choice (or simple availability) in rural Poland in the late 19th century.
Homemade kosher wines were not the only alcoholic beverages made in global Jewish kitchens, before licenses to distill were prevalent. A Moroccan Jewish liquor called “mahia” was made in homes for sale to the Jewish community (Muslim neighbors, of course, eschewed alcohol).
According to cookbook author Claudia Roden, illustrious maven of all foods Middle Eastern, mahia “was put out on the dinner table along with whiskey and Coca-Cola…. Figs or other fruit were covered with water, mixed with sugar and aniseed, fennel seed, or rosemary and left to ferment for three weeks. A pinch of yeast was sometimes added to activate the fermentation. The mixture was boiled and the cooled vapor distilled in an alembic [an apparatus used in the distillation process].”
Closer to home, a drink Jews had been making since the Middle Ages became a favorite of one of our American founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, a loyal friend and advocate to Jews of his era.
First taught to medieval Jews by Arabs as a method for preserving fruits, “Rum and Shrub” was popular with American Jewry from the revolutionary period through the late 18th century.
It may well have been the drink of choice at the first public kosher meal in America, a 1788 picnic celebrating the acceptance of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia. Shrubs came from the early Arab practice of making “sorbets,” or sherbets, by mixing white wine with fruit juices; the Philadelphia version was definitely in keeping with the Jewish practice of mixing fruit with harder spirits, probably dating back to mahia-like distillations of Middle Eastern origin.
Rum and Shrub
1 qt. rum, light or dark
1 lemon, juice and rind
1 orange, juice and rind
2 cups sugar
4 cups water
Cut strips of rind from the lemon and the orange and combine with the rum in a ceramic, glass or stainless steel container. Cover with a towel and let stand for 2 days or longer. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for five minutes. Add to the “shrub” along with the lemon and orange juices. Let stand, covered, in a cool place for a few days. Pour into sterilized bottles if desired, adding a strip or two of rind to each bottle. Will keep for months, and may be add a bit of refreshment to a happy Purim night!
Makes about a gallon
Another traditional, albeit non-alcoholic, refreshment for Purim is known as “sutlage” in the Balkans and Turkey and as “muhallabeya” in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Variations on this delicate milk pudding are uncountable, as every family or tribe has its own distinctive incarnation. Since Purim is also so much a holiday for the children, have fun deciding on a creative preparation and make this easy treat together.
1/4 cup rice flour (available at most Asian or Middle Eastern markets)
5-1/2 cups cold milk
1/2 cup sugar
Various flavorings and garnishes of your choice
Put one cup of the milk in a small bowl. Stirring constantly with a whisk, slowly add the rice flour, being careful to avoid lumps. Bring the rest of the milk to a boil in a medium-sized pan and slowly add the rice flour mixture, whisking vigorously over medium-low heat. Reduce the heat to very low and cook, stirring continuously until the mixture thickens, again being careful to not allow lumps from forming. Let the cream cook gently for about ten minutes more, stirring often. Stir in the sugar and cook until dissolved. Stir with a wooden spoon, being careful not to scrape the bottom of the pan; the cream always sticks and scorches a bit at the bottom and that part should remain on the bottom of the pan, untouched. Ladle into individual little bowls or cups, or into a medium-sized serving bowl. The cream will thicken as it cools.
• The most popular addition is to add 1 to 2 Tbs. of orange flower or rose water during the last five minutes of cooking and garnish the top of the pudding with chopped toasted almonds or pistachios.
• A Judeo-Spanish version from Turkey calls for a bit of scraped vanilla bean to be added to the milk while heating, or adding a few drops of vanilla extract to the finished with the zest of 1/2 lemon.
• Or, as Indian, Iraqi and Iranian Jews do, add 1 tsp. ground cardamom and 1 Tbs. rose water toward the end of the final cooking. Yum.
• Cornstarch can be substituted for the rice flour, or a combination of rice flour and cornstarch can be used. Be sure to take the same precautions to avoid making lumps.
Makes about 12 1/2-cup servings