Traditionally, we use our December column to explore wine-related gifting for Christmas. This year, my wife — lovely Kat Chinn, a superb cook — asked, “Whatchagot for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah?” Ooops. She set off a firestorm of eye-opening research.
This, we found, is (primarily) a secular holiday intended to recognize and celebrate the African origins of the millions of Americans whose ancestors were taken and transported to America to labor as slaves, mainly on the plantations of the South. Clearly, it’s been a centuries-long struggle for those people of African origins to emerge from that history. The struggle continues, America’s unfinished expiation. So what’s to celebrate, and how?
As part of an attempt to promote black nationalism, awareness and pride, in 1965-66 Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Africana Studies at Cal State University, Long Beach, urged black people to adopt the eight-day (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) holiday celebrated by Swahili-speaking tribes of East Africa, called matunda ya kwanza, “first fruits of the harvest,” promoting such values as umoja (unity), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith), plus others, all worth discussion. But our focus must be on the feast (Karamu) — and menu — and the “shared libations” typical of the celebrations.
Keeping with remembrance of African origins and the depredations of slavery, the Kwanzaa menu usually emphasizes humble foods, often labeled “soul food” — including black-eyed peas, okra, collard greens, sweet potatoes in some form, ham, maybe turkey or chicken, and so on. Oddly perhaps, many Kwanzaa menus include mac ’n’ cheese. Not much thought is given to matching those foods with wines — partly, we suspect, because African culture did not often include wines.
Libations of palm wine would be appropriate. Palm wine, fermented from the sap of palm trees was (is) widely popular in West African countries where most of the slave trade was conducted. But palm wine is almost impossible to find in our markets. South Africa, having discarded the vicious Apartheid system, has re-opened trade and gained recognition for some superb wines, sometimes in partnership with black growers, owners and winemakers. Shiraz (syrah), cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, blends of pinot noir (called “pinotage”) could be served at a Kwanzaa feast without apologies. Trust your local wine-pros to steer you toward specific labels.
Not one of the major holidays in the Jewish tradition until the 1970s, Hanukkah has become, for many Jews, especially in the U.S., a sort of Jewish alternative to Christmas, involving gift-giving (particularly to kids), feasting (with no restrictions on foods and work, common to major holidays) lighting of the nine-candle menorah (to be placed in a window, except in times of danger form anti-Semites) and general hoopla.
Historically, Hanukkah (also Chanukah), aka “Festival of Lights,” marks the Maccabees’ recapturing of the Second Temple from the Seleucid Empire, second century BCE. The lights on the menorah celebrate the discovery of sacred oil in the temple; the miracle occurred when, although there was enough oil for just one day, the lights burned for eight (the ninth candle is often used to light the others).
The menus for Hanukkah vary slightly but emphasize such foods as latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil, preferably olive oil. Also commonly served are brisket, short-ribs, noodle kugel, ginger-glazed salmon — actually a wide range of foods.
Wines for Hanukkah feasting should (depending on whose views are followed) be kosher, meaning they contain no non-kosher impurities. Often that has meant Manischewitz sweet red wine made from concord grapes ($10, 1.5L). One expert argues that any wines made in the U.S. or Canada would be acceptable, but some makers still stress their kosher cred. The wines from Baron Herzog can be quite drinkable: with latkes or salmon, try Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc ($10); with brisket, Baron Herzog 2010 Merlot ($14.50).
Lawn-signs read “Put Christ back in Christmas.” Actually, Christ’s birthday, scholars argue, was probably sometime in spring, maybe even summer, and the early Christians fought a long (losing) battle against what they regarded as a pagan holiday, the remnant of the Roman Saturnalia.
But the pagan roots probably reach back further than the Romans, to the celebration, on or about Dec. 21, of the Solstice; it also marked eating the last of the harvest’s food, to be followed by months of near-starvation. Good times.
We owe most of our “traditions,” practices and images to the Brits of the 19th century century, particularly Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.
Whatever. We get gifts, feasts and parties, which mean lots of good grub and some wines that (sorta) match.
Pop your party with Italian prosecco. Sure, French Champagnes are better but they’re spendy. Proseccos are fluffy and fun. Just about right for giggles and aperitifs. All pretty good; pick one, enjoy. Lots more, but …
Joyous Kwanzaa. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Io Saturnalia.