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The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

It’s that wonderful time of year again…



According to my friend Rita, the invention of the blender spelled disaster for the potato latke. She insists that the blood dripping from our grandmother’s knuckles as they grated the potatoes is what made their latkes so delicious.

My friend Larry swears that skimping on oil will produce an inferior latke; he fills the pan with three inches, which he regularly replenishes. He admits this makes for “an ongoing battle with grease,” but says it’s worth the fight.

My father used to criticize my mother’s latkes for lack of salt, and added it by the spoonful to his pancake batter. I had a cousin who reduced the amount of matzo meal to a scant two tablespoons. Another cousin uses flour. Martha Stewart chops scallions rather than grated onion in hers.

The point is, no two latkes are alike. I should not have been surprised, then, when my daughter Stacy, grown and with a kitchen of her own, had definite ideas about potato latkes. Thus, when we cooked together for a Chanukah party, conflicts surfaced as soon as she lined up the ingredients. which included a six-ounce bottle of vegetable oil. I immediately prepared to go to the store for more oil.

“We’re going to use more oil than that?” she asked, incredulous. I should mention that Stacy is a thin vegetarian who buys only organic produce and shops in health food stores. Using a large amount of oil in any dish is anathema to her. Ignoring her horror-stricken face, I went out and bought a half gallon.

When I returned, Stacy was putting potatoes through a food processor, from which they emerged shaped like tiny french fries. Horrified by their texture, I politely asked for a blender on the pretense that we’d finish faster if we both made the batter, and used it to grate my potatoes, onions and eggs.

When we got to the frying stage, all hell broke loose. Stacy poured in just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. She was about to lower a spoonful of batter into it when I grabbed her wrist.

“You can’t fry latkes in that little bitty oil,” I insisted. “They need to be almost covered to get crispy.” Stacy pulled free of my grip. “Ma, no way am I gonna use that much oil. It’s disgusting!”

“Disgusting? Grandma Sylvia is turning over in her grave.” Stacy rolled her eyes and continued to drop dollops of batter in her nearly oil-less cephalon pan. I suggested that, as an experiment, we each fry our own latkes–hers made of the batter from the food processor, mine from the blended batter. She agreed.

I stood in front of my burner, frying smooth-textured latkes in two inches of oil, while Stacy stood in front of her pan, sautéing mounds of teensy french fry look-alikes. When she briefly left her post for a bathroom break, I peered into her pan; without more oil her pancakes were going to stick. “It can’t hurt….” I murmured, tipping over the vegetable bottle and pouring some into her pan. Stacy returned from the bathroom, picked up her spatula and prodded one of her pancakes. “Wha…? Ma, did you put more oil in here?” Her tone was one of wounded shock.

“Yeah, “ I replied sheepishly. “Just a teensy drop—they were sticking.”

“I can’t believe you did that!” she shouted, on the verge of tears. “I would never do that to you! That shows complete disrespect. You don’t have any boundaries.”

Such words have been uttered by daughters to mothers since time immemorial; I had once used them myself. As their recipient I could only murmur, “I’m sorry…I just wanted to be sure your latkes didn’t stick.”

“It’s not just the latkes,” she said, tears falling freely. “You do things like this all the time.” She lifted her arm for emphasis, spatula in hand. I raised my arms, intending to give her a calming hug, but our spatulas collided, clinking like dueling swords. Stacy  stopped crying and burst into laughter. Relieved, I tapped her spatula again and we engaged in a mock duel, our laughter dispelling the built-up tension.

Later, when our separate latke platters sat side by side on the buffet table, I overheard Stacy talking to her friend Joann, a tall thin beauty. “My mom uses so much oil in her latkes,” I heard her say. “Don’t you think mine are better? They’re not as greasy.” Joann nodded. “You know how they cook,” she said, “all carbs and grease and sugar.”

Later on, though, I noticed Joann standing alone by the buffet. She glanced around furtively, then hastily grabbed one of my latkes and put it on her plate.

“What’s so funny?” Stacy, who’d been standing next to me, asked.

“I was just thinking of the dueling spatulas, I said.

Stacy chuckled. “You’ll have to admit,” she said, “my latkes are less greasy than yours.

“Uh huh,” I nodded, feeling like I’d just let her win at Scrabble or cards.  “Less greasy. Definitely.”




The People of The Book

Yesterday I visited the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I’d been wanting to go there for awhile, and finally had a free day. It hasn’t been around that long–the new building just opened in 2008–and it’s a relatively small museum, which I appreciate–unlike most museums, you can actually cover the whole place in a few hours.

Current exhibits are A Portrait of Bay Area Jews; Sendak on Sendak; Jews on Vinyl; and As It Is Written: The Torah Project. The Bay Area exhibit includes an NPR StoryCorps booth, where people can record stories from their lives and families, by appointment; the stories are regularly played on NPR.

Predictably, crowds of people, including lots of little kids, swarmed through the Maurice Sendak exhibit–but the most fascinating thing I saw, and it will stay with me a long time, was the Torah Project. I’ve seen Torah scrolls, but it never really dawned on me that somebody had to have written the whole thing. As I learned yesterday, each Torah is painstakingly copied from another by an individual–all 304,805 words–onto parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal by a scribe using a feather quill. This particular Torah is being inscribed by Julie Seltzer, in public view (check Museum schedule); it will take her one full year to complete. We’re talking about Hebrew letters here: writing them is more like painting than writing the ABC’s. It’s focused, back-breaking labor, with a rule for every aspect of the job.

After watching a video of the scribe at work, and studying the information on exhibit, I could only conclude that I come from a tribe of lunatics–brilliant, but insane. What could be more neurotic than enacting hundreds of rules and regulations to govern the creation of a religious document, an already arduous task? And while other religions got on board the Gutenberg Express early on, my people are still, today, writing these things by hand. Is that not insane?

But also brilliant. I’m not religious, but I am, on occasion, ethnically proud–and this is one of those occasions. I love it that I come from the People of the Book. I love it that my people care so much about The Book that if a Torah is damaged, it must be ritualistically buried. After Katrina, many damaged Torahs were rescued by boat from the synagogues to receive their proper burial.

The Torah Project will be at the Museum until next Fall, so there’s plenty of time to catch it. You can find out more about the subject, and fill in the enormous gaps in my knowledge, on the website.