A Latke Memory
Every year, as the holiday season approaches, I revisit what I call my “botched holiday meal” strategy. If I can maintain my reputation in the kitchen, no one will ask me to be in charge of feeding crowds. As an occasional science writer, I’m more of a cuisine naturalist than enthusiast.
For example, last year, around Thanksgiving I had to make four separate potluck dishes for the kids’ heritage feast at school. I had a mild panic attack and called my sister in Colorado. She said, “What are you asking me for? Don’t you remember I don’t cook either? Make something white. Kids love white food.”
Sheepishly, I called my mother. “You failed to domesticate us,” I told her.
“It’s not funny anymore. You don’t even iron,” she said.
Finally, at my mother’s suggestion, I made a green bean casserole – a dish I truly believed to have passed into legend circa 1971. My mother made a list of the simple ingredients I would need. She assured me it would be a hit. “It’s all starch and salt. Everyone loves it.” I went to the Safeway and it took me at least fifteen minutes to find French-fried onion rings. I had difficulty classifying them as a species. Would they be with crackers and chips? Baking supplies? On the ethnic foods aisle perhaps, under “Regional American/Confederate States?” Near the green beans, perchance? Finally I found them near the pharmacy, arranged precariously in a tower that was listing slightly to the right. Next aisle over I found the cans of cream of mushroom soup – a mysterious coagulated compound of fungi and plumber’s putty. I brought the casseroles to the heritage feast. When I pulled the foil off to present them, the casserole looked like wet grout with green beans. No one touched it.
Determined, I finally mastered the green bean casserole after several more attempts, and I decided I would bring it to Thanksgiving at my mother’s house. Sadly, when we arrived, the meal had already fallen into disharmony. The gravy, stuck in traffic on HWY 5, showed up two hours late. We waited as long as we could, until the turkey shriveled and dried out on the barbecue and the kids had to dunk it in the sparkling apple cider just so they could chew it. There was a miscommunication about the stuffing and we ended up with about forty pounds.
After everyone had enough wine, the conversation turned to Turducken, a distinctly Yiddish sounding word yet a profoundly unJewish dish. Luckily my cousin’s girlfriend at the time (now his wife) took my part. (She animates adult cartoon shows and collects rare fighter fish – a real shiksamy mother says.) Authoritatively, she said, “I believe a traditionally prepared Turducken is a Turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken. The French do something else. There are more birds involved. I think they start with an ostrich.”
“I bet,” I said. “An ostrich stuffed with a turkey, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a house finch, stuffed with a cigarette.”
“Exactly!” she said. “Speaking of cigarettes…”
My mother rose stiffly from her seat. Giving me the evil eye, left the dining room. “You had to start,” she said later. “At least you could let everyone eat before you make them sick with all your nature. How did I fail my daughters?”
A few weeks later Hanukah arrived. My strategy was working. “Can we all just admit that latkes are just Yiddish for “hash-browns” and get over it?” I asked my mother.
“They are not hash-browns. It’s important to make them from scratch, the right way, hand-grated. Will I never teach you anything?”
In our family, the “traditional way” means hours of peeling and grating followed by billowing black smoke followed immediately by the onset of anxiety around the Christmas meal.
“Don’t you remember last year?” I asked my mother.
A dark cloud passed over her face. During the previous year’s Hanukah dinner, I walked into my mother’s house during peak latke-production. My son, always running through the kitchen, skidded out on a viscous, potatoey substance on the floor and injured his head on the refrigerator. Clumps of latke batter dripped from my mother’s hair, and her face was partially covered in flour. The garbage disposal was making that burning brakes smell and yurping up copious amounts of potato matter.
“This isn’t making latkes, Mom. This is a potato apocalypse.”
“Don’t you have something to do? A trail to run? A ball to kick? Leave me alone,” she said defeated. It was only then that I realized it was I who had failed her.
Finally, after some pressuring, I convinced her to try the frozen latkes from Trader Joe’s. “It’s just us,” I said. “No one will know.” She scoffed, of course. But in the end I won. We spent the rest of the evening drinking and watching the candles burn down.
“These were good,” my mother said. “Not a word to anyone about frozen latkes, especially no one Jewish. My reputation is on the line.”
“Mom,” I said, “Haven’t I taught you anything?”
Additional Reading on the subject of latkes…