(Reprinted from Blogpost – Jan. 7, 2012)
Maybe the first step is simply deciding how to spell Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukha, and once that is accomplished one can set to making latkes. Boxed potato pancakes, be they Streitts or Manicheivetz or whomever, are the first mistake I made this season. Those things are horrible. I don’t know what they are supposed to be, but potato pancakes they are not.
I regained composure, brushed myself off, and looked in the fridge. As suspected I had some pre-shredded store bought potatoes. Not wanting to waste food, I combined the boxed stuff as a base, with the potato shreds for texture. Not elegant by any stretch of the imagination. My sons told me that the result was good, tasted like fast food tater tots. I think that was supposed to be a compliment. Or maybe the homemade applesauce a member of the shul had given me saved them.
Pushing on, I searched a dozen recipes, talked to friends who directed me toward more recipes, and then I figured out exactly what to do! I threw out all the recipes.
Growing up in New York City, raised by a single Mom who was also an alcoholic and a narcissist, I didn’t learn how to cook. Homemaking was not at the top of my Mothers priority list, likely it wasn’t there at all ever. She was raised with hired help; a Japanese man and wife slash chef and maid duo. Not that she ate at home much, the family photos I inherited show her at the “21” Club, the Waldorf Astoria, Giovanni’s. There are no photographs of Mom slaving over a hot stove creating a savory meal for her family. No Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving poses over the perfectly done turkey. Mom was the Queen of having her meals brought to her, just the right temperature and seasoned to perfection.
She did cook for me. Sort of. I was her last child, born 20 years to the month after her first child. She had lived through the “Eat your lima beans!” phase of motherhood once, and was absolutely not interested in living through it again. Mealtime went like this: “What would you like for dinner?” “’Sketti.” “Sketti it is!” And so from the time I could speak and eat solid foods until I entered college, my diet consisted of spaghetti with butter and salt. No red sauce. No meat whatsoever.
The list of foods I ate is far easier to list than the list of what I didn’t eat. Dinner was spaghetti, and that was that. For the rest of my meals, I had to fend for myself. Breakfast cereals were Sugar Pops, Frosted Flakes, Apples Jacks, Froot Loops, with sugar sprinkled on top and whole milk. Lunch was Kraft American cheese singles on white bread. If she felt up to it, Mom would peel and slice cucumbers for me. At restaurants, I might try a hearts-of-iceburg salad with salt. I was even picky about my candy, choosing only Juicy Fruit gum or Nestles chocolate bars at Halloween and giving my best friend and next door neighbor everything else.
That same friend convinced me to try cheese pizza the year we worked on the Jersey Shore painting temporary tattoos. I had been living on cheese sandwiches and French Fries at the diner up the block, or corn on the cob at the stand near the stripper dance club when she finally convinced me that pizza wouldn’t kill me. It took me the rest of the summer, on nibble at a time, to finally be able to eat an entire slice of pizza on my own in one sitting. I was so proud! Eighteen years old and I could eat pizza!
To return to the latkes, as I threw out the recipes, I knew I was entering new territory. Cooking from scratch. I’d read enough from the experts to glean the basic ingredients were potatoes, salt, pepper, eggs, and way too much peanut oil. Previous “from scratch” recipes had some limited success, but were mainly one trick ponies based around the béchamel sauce from The Joy of Cooking. Thanks to my friend and her sister my vegetable repertoire had grown to include carrots, broccoli, snap peas, green beans, onions and a few others. In college we had on campus apartments where I lived with vegetarians and we took turns makes stir-fry for dinner each night. But latkes…and ethnic food from scratch. Was I brave enough to take this on?
Armed with my hand-me-down knock-off Cuisineart food processor, a basic knowledge of what needed to be included, and my super huge Pampered Chef skillet full of peanut oil, I set too work.
Of all the things Jewish I’d experienced in New York growing up, latkes were not among the list. In third grade I learned about matzohs on Passover, and the school lunch line offered them with butter and salt. I was hooked. Chicken noodle soup with matzoh balls, I ate around the foreign bodies and stuck to the noodles and broth. Hanukkah candles and the nursery school story of 3 soldiers holding off a hoard of Greek soldiers to protect the Temple with only a one day supply of oil that turned into eight days of light was familiar to me. Yes, I have since been corrected with the historical accounts of the Macabbees, but the story is still magical to me.
Now, it was just me and this culinary oddity of fried potatoes held together with egg and mashed matzos. I’d already made my mistakes before Hanukkah had officially begun, and they weren’t inedible. Perhaps I was invincible. Perhaps these failures gave me confidence that I was on the right track. My younger son, Thing 2, offered to help, as he was by now invested in yummy potato pancake goodness and convinced of the latke-applesauce marriage. We peeled and shredded and mixed while the oil was heating.
I forgot to light the hanukkiah that night. In fact, I forgot most nights, even after we had spoken of staring into the candlelight on Saturday of Torah study during the holiday. For one thing, the hanukkiah is supposed to go in my window and shine the light out into the world. I have a real wax candle and flame hanukkiah, and also two insane dogs, two cats, two teen boys and a pyrophobic spouse. Candles on the windowsill are not an option. And electric hanukkiah is on the list along with a lot of other Jewish paraphernalia from a challah cover to a tallit or Jewish prayer shawl.
I did not, however, forget to soak up the time with my evangelical Christian-turned-atheist son. I took pictures of him holding up a handful of raw potato mixture as he growled “Brains!” in his best zombie voice, and then frying the pancakes at the stove.
I’m not Jewish yet, this is all practice, I reminded myself. The whole thing this year has been practice. I’m getting better.
In fact, I am getting better. That batch was definitely the best batch of latkes I’d made. They were thick, crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. We’d long since run out of homemade applesauce and were back to the Motts of my childhood, with the new world “All Natural” label of my son’s childhood. And I made them without being taught, without a recipe, without help from a Jewish Grandmother. Not bad for a practicing to-be-a Jew.