Snagging bargains for shalach manot

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Falling between the giving season of Chanukah and the getting season of tax refunds, Purim time finds households like mine searching for ways to keep holiday expenses down to earth without losing the mirth.

What with the cost of fancy, professionally made kosher

Discount Purim basket with a rich theme: Products purchased at a 99 Cents Only Store connect to characters in the Purim story. (Edmon J. Rodman)

shalach manot (from “mishloach manot,” “sending of portions”) baskets going for 50 bucks and up, I wanted to find a less expensive way to share the joy with more people.

I wanted to make my own basket of goodies, but what were the basic requirements? I mean very basic. On Purim, according to Jewish law, you should send at least two food items to at least one person, both to ensure that they have food for a Purim feast and to promote friendship between Jews.

So what kind of friendship could I promote for, let’s say, 10 bucks or less? I wanted variety, abundance, novelty and kosher. I wondered, could I fill my basket at that purple island of bargains, the 99 Cents Only Store?

I really didn’t want to give a basket filled with clearance cookies, weird candy and obscure snacks. Yet since these stores promote themselves by saying “Shop us first … for everything,” with perfect Purim logic I reasoned why not shalach manot?

Admittedly I had my doubts. That is until while searching the Valentine’s Day chazerai for some kind of box to hold my discoveries — once they put out the Easter baskets, the pickings are easier — I saw a kippah-wearing man also eyeing the stuff.

“Do you ever shop in here for Purim?” I finally asked, desperately wanting a co-conspirator.

“Yes, for shalach manot they have all kinds of stuff, sometimes even close-out Jewish things,” he replied.

“There’s kosher apple juice, food, and you get so much more here. You found the right meshuginah,” he added, pointing me toward a red plastic container that he claimed was “holiday” looking.

As he gave me his phone number, in case I needed more details, I discovered he was a rabbi. I felt so relieved.

The rabbi was right. Walking the aisles, I easily found packages of nuts, cookies, candies and pretzels, all certified kosher. But that wasn’t enough; I also wanted a theme. The best Purim baskets have some clever connecting idea, like “A night at the movies,” the theme of a plastic movie popcorn box filled with candy and popping corn that my synagogue sent me one year.

I brainstormed for a minute, and after tossing aside a theme of Shushan nightlife (I didn’t want to give a basket of 99-cent booze), I settled on a more sober theme (or so I thought) of the Megillah’s four main characters.

An accompanying text would help explain my theme, but since a 99 Cents Only store is unlikely to carry a Megillah Esther, I would need to be flexible. Luckily, in the book aisle I found a soft cover King James version of the Bible that had the Book of Esther.

“Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus,” the text began. What could I find to represent the king, ruler of 127 provinces, and by royal decree the instigator of a search for “fair young virgins”? In the drink aisle I found a bluish plastic bottle of G2, Gatorade Perform, which the packaging said would “replenish vital nutrients and energy” — just the thing to represent an active ruler with a “second house” just for his women.

“Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai,” the text continued, going on to say “And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter …”

To represent Esther, I found a package of Hannah Montana Milk Chocolate Sticker coins. The Hannah Montana/Miley Stewart double life characterization (played by Miley Cyrus on the Disney show) reminded me of Esther’s double life as a secret Jewish maiden who is also Ahasuerus’ queen.

For Mordecai, who saves the king from an assassination plot, and ultimately emerges as victor in a power struggle with Haman, I thought some bling would show off his new status. In the candy aisle I found a package of Ring Pops, the “wearable candy.” I imagined the sunlight glinting off them as Mordecai sat by the gate.

But first he would need to escape the shadow of Haman.

“After these things did King Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite … And all the kings servants bowed and reverenced Haman … But Mordecai bowed not …”

For Haman, by tradition I needed something like a grogger to properly blot out his name. On the toy rack I found just the thing: a hand-shaped clapper that even had a large sticker that read “Make some Noise!”

Thinking about Haman always makes me hungry for hamantaschen. Suspecting that the 99 Cents Only Store would be short on three-cornered pastries, I searched the cookie aisle until I found a fill-in: Knott’s Berry Farms round raspberry shortbreads, each with a dollop of red showing in the center. I imagined if you trimmed them to a triangle, they would look close. I did say flexibility would be key.

Now to add the final touch to my shalach manot, and to fulfill the Purim tradition that one should drink on Purim until they don’t know the difference between Mordecai and Haman, I found an unlikely solution: Larry the Cable Guy Beer Bread. Just add Beer and Butter.”

According to Larry, who is featured on the package wearing his trademark sleeveless plaid shirt, “This recipe calls for a can of beer … just be sure to use the beer and not drink it!”

It’s Purim. Of course you can drink the beer. But my Purim basket will carry this warning: When you can’t tell the difference between Larry and Miley Cyrus, it’s time to stop.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)