If the phrase mishloach manos conjures up dreaded images of piles of sugar laden treats that no one wants to eat cluttering every available horizontal surface just weeks before Pesach, chances are that this is one part of the happiest of Yomim Tovim that you are not looking forward to. I find it hard to believe that endless stacks of broken foil wrapped wafers, rolls of paste, colored winky candies and cloudy grape juice bottles of dubious vintage have any bearing on the mitzvah of mishloach manos.
It seems to me that many people spend countless hours obsessing over a theme for their mishloach manos, possibly even one that matches the entire family’s carefully coordinated Purim costumes. Chinese themed mishloach manos. An all purple mishloach manos. Beach themed mishloach manos. Over the years I have gotten some pretty creative packages from some very clearly talented people. However, I can’t help but wonder if it might be a good idea to focus less on what goes with “the theme” and more on what people actually want to receive.
Of course, by doing that you open up a veritable Pandora’s box. Do any of us really have time to prepare a customized mishloach manos for every person on our list? I can only imagine what that would entail. Low-fat foods for my parents. Low calorie foods for my cousin in Queens. Exclusively organic food for one neighbor. One hundred percent nut free for another. All chocolate for my sister, with nothing chocolate for her husband. Lots of gum for one friend. No gum at all for my sister-in-law. The list goes on and on and doesn’t even begin to cover teachers, rabbeim and others whose food preferences are completely foreign to you.
So how to come up with mishloach manos that people will be happy to receive?
First and foremost, think outside the box. If you are over the age of ten, is there any reason to associate mishloach manos with candy? Think of foods that people like and more importantly, that present nicely, are easy to prepare and can either be assembled in advance or put together at the last minute with minimal effort.
I know there are those who would disagree with me, but I am a big believer in sending actual food for mishloach manos. Picture your typical Purim. You spend the day either answering the door, delivering mishloach manos or escorting several children to numerous friend’s homes scattered all over your neighborhood. For me, there is nothing I appreciate more than real food showing up on my doorstep, which I can either serve on Purim, Shushan Purim when my kids are home from school, or can be stashed in my freezer for quick thawing in the hectic pre-Pesach days when I have neither time nor patience for cooking. As an added bonus, chances are good that any food you make yourself will be less costly than anything you buy in your local store.
I should warn you that I do know of people who immediately toss out any homemade food the minute it comes into their house. There are no hard and fast rules here and you will never please everyone, so try your best and hope your efforts are well received.
Over the years, we have experimented with numerous cooked foods that people seemed to welcome. (Or maybe they were just being polite when they told me how much they enjoyed them?) Among the things we have tried: bagels, cream cheese and lox, cold cut sandwiches with pickles and even a quart of my husband’s legendary cholent when Purim fell out on Friday. Other ideas were freezer friendly and could be made weeks in advance: cherry cobbler, small kugels and containers of soup, which when paired with an inexpensive mini bottle of schnapps, made for a nice presentation, if I do say so myself. A word of caution: If you are sending perishable food items, make sure the recipient knows that the item requires refrigeration. It is such a waste to find a great looking pastrami sandwich lurking in someone’s mishloach manos at 11:00p.m. and having to throw it out because it has been sitting on your dining room table for the past ten hours.
Of course, there may be people for whom you may feel the need to prepare something special and personal. Your parents. The machatanim. Your married children. But chances are you know their preferences, which means that, hopefully, they will welcome your offering with open arms.
If you find the concept of making everything from scratch daunting, try stocking up on bulk dried fruits and nuts, many of which will likely be on sale at your local kosher fruit store in honor of Tu B’Shvat. Bag them yourself in pretty cellophane bags, tie them up with some decorative ribbon or a small silk flower and they will look as good as they taste.