The Oil that Binds

We pronounce them “luckies,” which always made sense growing up because we felt so lucky to eat them. It was their salty richness, their fluffy potato innards, their cascade of oil soaking the paper towels ensconcing them on the dinner table.

There were other delights at Hanukah every year, from sweet gelt munched far too early in the day, to strips of corned beef I adorably termed “Hanukah bacon,” to the classic gefilte fish only the adults looked forward to. But latkes, for our ever-secularizing family, were the reason for the season.

It was my aunt, Sherri, who guarded the latke recipe. As a teenager and young adult, Sherri had been a wayward rebel, eschewing her parents’ warnings as she threw herself from one reckless adventure to the next. But in her mellow middle age, she had come to adopt a respect for tradition that even Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof would have been proud to see.

Sherri diligently grated potatoes every winter, carefully sprinkled matzo meal into the gloopy mess, and unfailingly watched for the telltale browning on the little pancakes. Her partner, Ron, stood by her side at the stove, piling the sizzling latkes on the paper-towel-laden plates. Early on, I learned that if I helped dish out the spoonfuls of batter into the boiling oil, I might be able to snag a latke or two fresh off the stove.

And as the years went by, I also gradually learned the family recipe for latkes. I learned the delicate but entirely unscientific proportions—one to two potatoes per person, two onions per ten potatoes. I learned how to identify just the right consistency of the mush—it should be gloppy, but not runny. And I learned how to navigate the all-important oil that brought the whole ceremony together, turning spoonfuls of lifeless goop into morsels no one could put down—it had to be sizzling, but not popping. That was the key.

While my three younger siblings washed their hands as soon as potato-peeling duty was over, I, like my aunt before me and who knows how many eldest daughters before us, hovered in the kitchen learning the family lessons.

But would it be enough to make latkes on my own?

I wouldn’t have a choice, moving from Pittsburgh and its rich multicultural heritage, to a Montana town with just over 20,000 people and no synagogue.

I wrung my hands as I drove from outlying town to outlying town, scouring each small grocery store for the crucial Manischewitz ingredient. I eventually thought to google matzo meal, and my kind Jewish forebears directed me to the exact aisle where a tub of the essential item could be found.

I carted my treasure back to my studio apartment, along with my eggs, onions, potatoes, salt and, of course, oil. I bought a cheese grater and sat down to work, pulling the trash can beneath me like we had always done at home. I sawed with a small knife and missed my aunt’s Rotato device.

My fingers bled, potato chunks flew, and I found myself missing the camaraderie of peeling — the familiar arguments over music and the competitions over potatoes peeled. I glanced at my new menorah, still gleaming and free of wax. It had been a gift from my mom when I moved to Montana.

I wrung my fingers out after the unending chore of grating. I mixed in all of the ingredients and, with more than a little trepidation, began to pour the oil.

My first spoonful sizzled sharply, and I winced. Hot oil splashed out of the pan at me. I reached for another dollop, and then the fire alarm started blaring.

I panicked and grabbed the entire pan, yanking it off the burner and running with it out onto the apartment lawn. I threw the hot pan into the snow and fanned at the smoky air with the door. Eventually, the alarm stopped sounding, and I gingerly picked up the pan.

With a fan blaring and the door propped open to the cold December air, I carefully ladled out the rest of my batter. I let the latkes cool in the soaked paper towels and seasoned them generously with salt before I dared try one.

They looked like my aunt’s, they smelled like my aunt’s, but after six hours of nonstop work in the kitchen, I couldn’t bear it if they didn’t taste like my aunt’s. I selected a cooling latke from the top of my pile. And there it was. The salty flavor. The flaky texture. As good as I had tasted in my grandmother’s small apartment in Pittsburgh.

Glowing, I eagerly wrapped up the rest and piled Tupperware upon Tupperware into my green VW Beetle. I careened into my office, my arms laden with latkes, ecstatic to share my triumph with my coworkers.

“Latkes,” I called out breathlessly. “I made latkes, everybody.”

The newsroom stared at me. No one made a move to get out of a chair. I remembered how my family always pronounced Yiddish and Hebrew words differently, from latke, to kebosh, to l’chaim.

“Lat-kuhs,” I deliberately enunciated. “There are lat-kuhs here.”

Still, no commotion.

I wasn’t deterred. I picked up one of the Tupperware containers and carried it to my nearest coworker. He just looked at me blankly. Then the next just stared, and the next, until I found that not a single Montanan in my forty-person newsroom had ever heard of a latke.

Bewildered, I tried to explain their potato-filled flavor without dumbing them down to simple potato pancakes. I couldn’t help but start to panic as I saw the steam on the sides of the Tupperware begin to vanish, signifying the beloved latkes were cooling at an alarming rate.

“Try one!” I insisted.

My friend Jake, a blonde-haired Idaho transplant, lumbered his way over to me and my sprawling latke collection. I babbled about applesauce and sour cream as he took his first bite.

“A little oily,” he noted as he chewed.

I grinned and grabbed one for myself. “I know.”

Bret Anne Serbin is a journalist in Montana. Her nonfiction has been featured in Deep Wild Journal and is forthcoming in Archer Magazine. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in English. She’s originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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