Monday, December 10, 2012
The miracle of the latkes, 20 years later
My mom has written before about Hannukkah miracles. The most famous one took place about 20 years ago, when, in the midst of one of her renowned block-wide latke parties, her food processor broke down halfway through a batch of her famous potato pancakes. My dad disappeared into the garage while she and some of her friends huddled around the machine, patting it as if it were a dead dog, murmuring faint praise. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight and I was absorbed in a game of dreidel, which in those days we always played on the linoleum floor, watching to be sure that the tops never stuck in the cracks between tile, and when I looked up again my dad had surprised us all by sneaking in amongst all the neighbors, cradling a half-wrapped, brand-new food processor still in its box.
"I was going to give you this for Christmas," he said, and before I could really understand what had happened, my mom had crumpled into him, hugging this most O. Henry of gifts. Before long the new machine was up and whirring, the kitchen buzzing with laughter and frying oil.
This is one of my mother's signature stories. I've since learned the subtlety of it; the careful way my parents have navigated their interfaith relationship. This weekend I was reminded, yet again, of how much those gestures mean.
Ryan and I decided early last week that we wanted to ring in Hannukkah somehow this year, and so we invited a few friends over for dinner and started planning recipes. My parents were out of town and I didn't feel right making latkes without my mom.
"But we can't have a Hannukkah party without latkes," Ryan said.
"It isn't the same without my mom's recipe," I said. "Besides, we don't have a food processor, so..."
The truth was, I was terrified of making latkes. Some part of me had always been terrified of all that hot oil, of laboring over a soaking tub of scrubbed potatoes, of straining the batter through towels, of getting stuck in the kitchen above the hot stove. Some part of Ryan still quietly persisted, bringing it up again when we went to the flea market to get ingredients. We bought fresh vegetables and spices and two pounds of potatoes...just in case. And then we passed a small stall selling kitchen equipment, where an entire row of used Cuisinart sat, their plugs trailing off the table.
"How much?" Ryan asked, picking each one up, spinning their blades with his thumb and forefinger. "Can you plug this in so we can see it work?"
Half an hour later, we walked back to the car with our arms laden, the new toy swinging in our farmer's market bag.
That night we bustled around our small kitchen, chopping vegetables, layering lasagne, grilling chicken, peeling potatoes. I'll never forget the feeling of slipping those first few potatoes into the machine, watching as the blade splintered carbohydrate into a fine batter. It awakened something in me that I'd left on my parents' tile floor. And when it came time to drop the first few pancakes onto the frying pan, something small and important shifted: here I was, making latkes, without my mother, for the first time. And when our guests came, and ate the first batch, I leapt up and prepared the second batch, enjoying the hustle of the hot hot kitchen, enjoying the company of my friend Tiffany as she leaned against the fridge, catching me up on her life while the pancakes lapped up oil. I was reminded of my mother in one of her famous aprons, her hair bunched around her face as the heat rose ever higher, one hand on her hip, one hand on the spatula as she stood by the pan, chatting with neighbors and friends.
What was it, that feeling? Was it pride? Was it love? Was it awe? The feeling stayed with me until long after the guests had left and the dishes were washed. It was the sensation that a tradition had been passed down and I was there to honor it. And the realization that I wouldn't have even tried if it hadn't been for this goyische boy with blue eyes, the one who an hour before the guests came drove to Lowe's and bought holiday lights for the patio--"blue and white," he'd said, "for Hannukkah."