Wino confidential: The Curse of Manischewitz

A dame, a bottle and a story.
A dame, a bottle and a story.

“I will never accept him!” she screamed. “I will never accept him!,” the velvet blue rings around my mother’s soil-colored pupils expanding like Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. “Oh no,” I thought. She’s going to summon her boys — Moses, Jesus, King Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. My mother set her ice-filled glass of Manischewitz grape concord on her nightstand, wrapped a paisley-print scarf around her head and used holy oil (Pompeian extra virgin olive oil) to anoint her forehead with the sign of the cross. It was going to be a straight-up spiritual joust. And I knew I wasn’t going to win.

It was a set-up — my mother invited me over for a mother-daughter bonding session. I hadn’t shown up for our weekly jaunts to the thrift store in over a month, so she must have sensed there was a new man in my life. When I showed up that evening, she pulled two antique ribbed green wine glasses from her prized china cabinet, pulled the Manishevitz from a wicker basket she keeps on top of the fridge, filled our glasses with ice and poured. “So tell me about him,” she said in a coy, girlfriend-kind of tone.

“He doesn’t have much,” I responded. And with each sip, I told her more and more about my new boo, Frank: He’s 42. He’s got three teenage children from three different mothers. He doesn’t really have a career, but he has a stable job as a manager at Wendy’s. My mother sat quietly, sipping and nodding slowly. “What kind of car does he drive?” He doesn’t have car or a license. He has this prison thing that hasn’t subsided yet. Anyway, we use my car. I like that he can drive me around.

I thought my mother and I had arrived at the official girlfriend phase of our relationship and was excited to share the revelation with my best friend Sandy. Sandy, however, saw the scam: You told her what? You’re taking this keep-it-real-thing waaay too far, Dinks. You think your Jamaican mother who came to America with five cents in her pocket and worked double shifts to put you through private school is going to lose her only daughter to a manager at Wendy’s… who has a prison rap? You underestimate her greatly. Okay, so I had a diarrhea-style case of In Vino Veritas, the Latin phrase for “there is truth in wine.” “Fodder!” I exclaimed to Sandy. “I’m a grown woman and my mother will have to accept this, like it or not.”

About Frank: He was about six feet, four inches tall, his hue the color of cashews that had been soaked in honey wine and then left to roast in an Ethiopian sun. He had a full, curly afro that looked like gray-speckled, dark-brown champagne bubbles. He had big hands, a devilish smile and a lot of tattoos — a huge burnt orange lion’s head on his upper right shoulder and the words “Through Sinking Sand” scribed across his chest in an Egyptian hieroglyphic-style print. His mother was Ethiopian and his father was a Brooklyn boy of Italian and black descent, so on his back, he had a tattoo of a voluptuous older woman stirring a pot with the words “God’s Mixed Stew” inscribed underneath.

We met at a sausage vendor on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. He was wearing his Wendy’s ensemble, but I could see the tattoos peaking from his sleeves (super sexy). We were both commenting on how deliciously sweet the smothered onions were on our blackened Garcia sausages. Two hours later, we were exchanging sausage soliloquies in the historical museum courtyard. Frank’s dream was to open a morning sausage joint where you could get everything from Great Dogs and scrabbled eggs to Jimmy Dean sausage pancakes. And he’d have a cute wine and beer list — bottles for no more than $20 and $3 glasses of wine. “It’s gonna be like France — people drinkin’ wine and eatin’ good food without spending their entire paycheck.” Wow. Soon after, we began an intensely passionate food-love thang.

For the next few months we spent most weekends in his trailer. We’d spread newspaper all over his carpet and munch on pounds of dungeness crabs, the soft white meat yielding to sweet hunks of garlic perfumed with olive oil and parsley. Frank served the crabs with what he called Ghetto Cocktail sauce: a ketchup and Tabasco mix that was divine. We’d feed each other, our hands lathered in a garlicky-KY lubricant that we both found irresistible. On Saturdays after yoga, we’d go to Enriqueta’s for the grilled skirt steak, rice and beans and sweet fried plantains, but what we really loved was their leche flan. At $2.50, it was like a poor man’s crème brûlée. That’s how I ended up nicknaming Frank Leche Flan and he, in turn, nicknamed me Chocolate Girl.

We’d go to Seventh Street Wine Company and Total Wine and randomly select bottles. I guess that’s why I was so smitten with Frank. With him, I wasn’t a red Burgundy suffocating in a cellar of expectation. Sometimes, I was a fruit bomb, a wine spliff, and that was okay. We both loved poetic reds with sweet, earthy spices and flavors: 2004 Tinto Figuero, 2004 Bogle Petite Sirah, 2004 Tres Picos Garnacha, 2003 Viña Santa Ema Cachapoal Merlot and 2004 Champ du Pin Avril Chinon (the last bottle is a Cabernet Franc that smelled of dried tarragon and dried black cherries). Whenever Frank went to the gas station for his nightly (and his morning-ly) 40-ounce and Newports, he’d always bring me a couple 187ml bottles of Sutter Home Merlot.

Six months went by and I guess my mother and her boys decided that it was time for me to see some things… Frank was the consummate “Mean Weller.” You know, one of those people who seemed petrified in potential’s purgatory. He always meant to do this or that: I meant to finish the culinary school application. I meant to pay the parking ticket. I meant to pay the phone bill. I meant to save towards the rent. I meant to file my income tax report. I meant to call you back. I meant to tell you that I had a new baby girl who lives in Brooklyn with my wife, whom I meant to tell you about.

One afternoon a beautiful Kerry Washington-looking woman showed up at the trailer with a beautiful baby girl latched to her hip. She didn’t even have to finish… “We’re still married… this is Summergale… our daughter…” Frank was at work, but when he got home, what he found was his wife and child. Not Chocolate Girl.

I was sad. I missed Leche Flan. I had not seen my mother in a couple weeks, but what can I say, I wanted my mommy, so I tucked my tail between my legs and went to her house. When she opened the door, she saw my Red See eyes and spared me the usual “I’ll never accept him” melodrama, and so I immediately went through her pots bubbling over with curry gravy. She went to her cabinet and pulled out the green antique wine glasses, tossed in a couple handfuls of ice and poured the Manishevitz. At first there was a polite silence, then she whispered in her strong Jamaican twang, “Manischewitz is a good wine, not like those bitter, old grapes you usually like.”

Published: 7/08