Monday, December 22, 2014

Mazel Tov at Mensch Manor

We were incredibly honored by an invitation to an intimate dinner party at the home of the cardiologist who was instrumental in saving Richard's life and his wife, who plans elaborate parties for a living. They live in the home in which he was brought up, and are both devout Jews who honor all the Jewish holidays in their home. 

Juliet was brought up Roman Catholic, but converted to Judaism before marrying Moshe and combining their families. Some of their children are practicing Jews; others are not, but what they all have in common is that they all grew up in uptown New Orleans. Being a New Orleanian, raised in the heart of one of the oldest areas of New Orleans is a religion unto itself. Most people from uptown even pronounce New Orleans with three syllables, rather than the usual two used by suburbanites.

Moshe's mother, in addition to being the matriarch of her own large family, was a renowned New Orleans art critic, patron, activist, and connoisseur. The home in which Moshe and Juliet live is Old New Orleans at it's very best, showcasing some of the greatest of New Orleans artists' works. Though the children of this home are all grown, there are always people other than Moshe and Juliet in residence. Grandchildren, students seeking a warm welcome when studying in one of the nearby universities, dozens of Godchildren, and any friends who want to bring their pajamas (or not) and stay for the night.

We really didn't know what to expect when we got the invitation. We have been to dinner at their home on more than one occasion, when it was only the four of us. Mostly we've been to their home when seemingly several hundred people were dancing and partying to beat the band...often with their formal parlor turned into a bandstand. Juliet and Moshe are much younger than are we, so we have never been able to stay long enough to see the ends of the evenings, except when it has been only the four of us.  Age is not the only reason we can't keep up with them, but it makes me feel better to pretend this is so.

Juliet and Moshe simply love to celebrate the very air that they breathe, and nobody does it better, or with more variety, than they do. They simultaneously decorate their home for Hanukkah and for Christmas. I won't be surprised if we arrive one day to find Kwanzaa included in the decor and celebration, as their home, year round, Certainly exemplifies the spirit of Kwanzaa.

We found a parking spot in the very front of their home, feasting our eyes on the lights draping the iron fence and covering Moshe's treasured Sasanqua azaleas that bloom every winter here in New Orleans. I had to smell the garlands of greenery on their old brick steps' black iron banister to know that they hadn't hung real evergreen that fall apart within a week in our heat. The decorations on their door and porch welcomed us with lots of gold intertwined in the green. (Add a little purple and they will be ready for Mardi Gras.) 

We had to knock several times before Moshe, looking harried, answered the door. He apologized that we had to "act like family and hang out in the kitchen" acknowledging that were right on time, but that he could not yet offer us cocktails. Moshe is an accomplished mixologist and takes great pride in doing drinks the way the greatest bars in New Orleans do them. With the deft handwork of a surgeon, he was peeling an orange into one long spiral of skin and studding it with whole cloves.

As we passed through the dining room toward the kitchen, we were absolutely stunned by the opulent tablescape, set with green Venetian glass and gleaming gold charger plates on which were setting exquisite fine china. Candles glowed all around. I felt like we had stepped back in time to the early twentieth century in New Orleans, when servants were in abundance to cook, iron the linens, shop, cook, set the table, serve, and wash the fine crystal, china, and silver. The amazing thing is that we knew that Moshe and Juliet were doing it all, and that we were included in the small group invited to celebrate Moshe's latest success. 

It wasn't long before another couple arrived, one whom we didn't know from previous parties. They, too, were treated to watching Moshe's handwork with the orange. Moments later, Moshe called us all to follow him into the living room, where on the bar he proudly displayed a bottle of port which he had been saving for several decades and the contents of said bottle decanted into a Baccarat carafe. He announced that this was all about celebrating his recent success. 

As the third, and last, couple arrived, Moshe was ceremoniously pouring perfectly made Manhattans into the proper stemware. Juliet arrived and requested a glass of claret. We had known for months that Moshe was studying for an esoteric and new area of Cardiology care. Though he is brilliant and imminently accomplished in all he attempts, his nerves for these months were strung as tightly as piano wires. He announced that he had gotten the results and he passed, to which we all offered great sighs of relief and raised our glasses to having our friend so happy. We had never doubted his success.

The last couple to arrive, Mona and her husband Mickey have been at every function we've ever attended at this home, so they really are family. Mona took one look at the table and asked, appropriately, "Where are you putting the food?" We noshed on hors d'oeuvres in the parlor for a while, sipping and basking in Moshe's glory; then Juliet began to lay out the buffet.

As we were seated, Moshe poured both red and white wines, the Claret for some and Vouvray for others of us. He also poured water all around. Timothy, who was seated next to me, received from the hands of Juliet a bowl of freshly steamed haricot verte and what looked to be falafel patties. It seems that even vegans get what the wish for in this home.

The salad was spectacular, and had the gourmet touch of prosciutto in place of bacon bits. The sweet potatoes were firm and in a syrup that was just sweet enough; not cloying like so many sweet potatoes. The stuffed merliton was pure New Orleans goodness; I'd challenge any chef, in or out of New Orleans, to beat Juliet's version of this dish. And the crowning touch (pun intended) was the crown roast of pork with gold foil tips for the standing bones. There is nothing more elegant in presentation, in my opinion, than crown roast. The pork was slightly pink in the middle, as it should be, tender and other words, roasted to perfection. This was accompanied by a side dish of applesauce, as if it needed more embellishment.

Before we ate, there were three blessings spoken over us and the table, two in Hebrew by Moshe and one the Roman Catholic grace before meals by lifelong friend Mickey. The conversation was lively and laughter was good-natured. Any subjects that were brought up to break the mood were gently, but firmly put aside for later by Moshe. I kept waiting to see servants standing at the ready, knowing how much work went into this moment in time. 

As the dinner dishes were cleared, Juliet brought out champagne glasses and ice cream with three different toppings. While we ate ice cream, Moshe appeared with what appeared to be a small silver punch bowl and ladle. As we watched, he raised the clove-studded orange skin spiral out of the bowl, picked up the ladle and poured a liquid over the end of the spiral. Fire leapt out of the bowl and traveled up and down the spiraled skin. 

We were now witnessing the Old New Orleans performance art form of flaming desserts and coffee at table side. Moshe was using what he said used to be given to all New Orleans brides as a wedding gift, his mother's sterling silver cafe brulot bowl, and what a show he put on! The highly spirited coffee was served in fine china demi tasse cups. Timothy announced that he had enjoyed cafe brulot in several of the best New Orleans restaurants, and that this was the finest he had ever had.  It was spiced and spiked better than any I’d ever tasted.

Juliet, once again appeared from the kitchen, with yet another vintage recipe, perfectly prepared: baked in an iron skillet buttery pineapple upside down cake. We ate for hours, it seemed, but the evening was still young. The champagne flutes were filled with Veuve Clicquot, tasting to me of sparkling fresh pears, to wash down our cake before we retired to the parlor for 40 year old port and aged  Montrachet cheese and chocolate. 

It was time to bring out the parlor game that we had given Moshe and Juliet as a gift. Questions were asked and hilarity ensued while Moshe offered everyone liqueurs. I don't know when was the last time we stayed at a party this late, but the time simply flew by. One of the questions asked of Juliet was, "What is your favorite time of year?" She replied, "I love this holiday season because everyone is so nice to each other. 

Juliet and Moshe stretch this holiday season to include Hanukkah and Christmas. They then roll right into celebrating the carnival season of Mardi Gras. They do so much for so many that we were inspired, for Moshe's last birthday, to give them New Orleans style tiles saying "Mensch Manor" Their home is what humanity is supposed to be about, whether one is Jewish, Catholic or simply of homo sapiens who wish to be considered full parts of humanity.

We were celebrating Moshe, and he and Juliet were waiting on us! This was a sacrament, in my eyes. The good will we shared will be transubstantiated into good will and good works by all who were at the table and all who enter their home.

This was our Christmas dinner. Thank you, Moshe and Juliet.

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