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The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

Another one of my seasonal posts:

The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

crispy-panko-potato-latkes-16According to my friend Rita, the invention of the blender spelled disaster for the potato latke. She insists that the blood dripping from our grandmothers’ 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. My sister adds flour. Martha Stewart uses 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 last Chanukah, 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 oil 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.”

Words to this effect 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, bubala…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, extremely 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.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, “I was just thinking of the dueling spatulas.”

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

“Uh huh,” I nodded, kissing her on the cheek, feeling exactly the way I used to when she was a little girl and I let her win at checkers. “Less greasy. Definitely.”



He Left His Scarf in My Car

Having just learned that musician Billy Faier died this past year, I’m posting a poem that he inspired many years ago. 

He left his scarf in my car.
Sleepily I fingered the hand-woven wool
that had embraced his neck
on countless winter sojourns.

Then I saw my empty finger:
my ring was on his piano
or perhaps on his hand now
playing Bach.

roadAs I drove into the morning sun
a million ghosts of one-night stands
faded into history:
my ring was on his piano
and his scarf was in my car.

Neighbors, Noise, and Living With One Another

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At approximately 6:14 this morning my downstairs neighbor came a-calling. She was irate because I’d woken her, as she says I do every day,  “dragging shit” all over the floor. I tried to tell her I’d covered all the chair and table legs with felt so they make not a sound, but she kept talking right over me, cursing like I do when I’m mad. “I don’t wanna listen to you,” she shouted, “I listen to you every fuckin’ night.”

“It’s morning,” I corrected her.

That’s how far apart we are. As she yelled, though, I figured out it must be my desk chair that’s making the noise – it’s on wheels that can’t be covered with fabric. I admit I would not want to be woken up by wheels rolling across a hardwood floor either. I guess I’ll have to buy a small rug. I won’t apologize to #109,  though – she was too nasty to rate an apology.

This was not the first time she’d come calling. Once when I ran across the room to pick up the ringing phone, she came up and told me to “walk a little lighter,” which kind of knocked me out. Did she think I was going to be running marathons up here? After that, whenever I swept the floor, or even so much as dropped something, she banged on the ceiling like a maniac. That’s why I put felt on everything: I’m not  inconsiderate, I just hadn’t realized my chair was so loud.

The irony  is, I write in the early morning hours partly because of all the noise around here. Most mornings I’m at my desk, and therefore in my wheeled chair, by seven. At 10:30 or so the guy upstairs gets out of bed, turns on his music, and stomps around; it feels like footsteps pounding on my head. Every minute he’s awake and  home he’s playing music, sometimes unbearably loud. I don’t hear music down here, though: what I get is the steady BOOM BOOM of the bass. If I’m writing I put on jazz to cover over it (lyrics distract me when I’m working).

I’ve spoken to #309 several times, and so has the building manager. After the first two visits, he lowered his music considerably, but it slowly began to drift into the upper decibels again. “It’s not that loud,” he said the third time I went up there. I stood still and listened. It really wasn’t that loud. He’s a young guy, his girflfriend’s there half the time, they want their music….I was almost ashamed. I decided to leave the kids alone.

A few hours after #309 gets up, the street beneath my window comes to life, as people return from work and kids from school or camp. When I moved here in March I didn’t realize I was moving into el barrio, but that’s exactly where I am. The street is the site of evening socializing, festive weekend parties, kids playing, and – worst of all – cars cruising, parking, and pulling out, all the while blasting music. People frequently leave their engines running, with or without music, for fifteen or twenty minutes while they go off somewhere. Not only is it noisy, but my apartment needs daily dusting, and if there’s that much dirt in the house, what must be going into my lungs?

One night a car was parked under my window, its radio so loud I actually couldn’t hear my own tv, the car’s owner nowhere in sight. Frustrated, not knowing what else to do, I tossed frozen string beans onto his windshield until he showed up; he was mad but couldn’t help laughing. I’m probably known as the Crazy Old Lady on the Second Floor.

I’ve lived primarily in apartment buildings since 1970, when  I took my kids and walked out of my beautiful ranch house in suburbia. I lived in New York City, where you expect noise, and never had a problem. In San Francisco, my upstairs neighbor complained about my singing. Yes, I sing once in awhile, and my voice is less than wonderful….but come on! The landlord sided with my neighbor;  she’d previously evicted the opera teacher who lived across the hall. I’m no opera lover, but I liked it when his students came for lessons – that sort of thing reminded me of New York. And yet the landlord gave me a condescending lecture, saying I had to “learn how to live in apartment buildings.” She felt perfectly justified about giving the opera singer the boot – so she sure wouldn’t hesitate to throw out someone who couldn’t carry a tune. My favorite part of this story, though, is the name of the complaining neighbor: Kathy Annoye. My son and I called her Ms. Annoy, and he used to get a thrill out of ringing her bell and running away.

Anyhow, in the here and now I’m sandwiched between one neighbor who’s noisy, and another who expects me to play dead, all of it going on against the backdrop of a soundtrack straight out of Mi Familia. I decided months ago that I can’t stay in this place, that I’ll move when the lease is up. But now with #109 cramping my style (I like to breathe) I’m thinking I’ll have to break the lease and get out sooner.

Next time I move I’m going to scrupulously assess every detail, from my neighbors to how many trees are on the street (very few here, but that’s another blog). I’m getting sick of these lateral moves – but maybe no place I live will be tolerable. Maybe life is the way Marge Piercy exquisitely said it at the end of Gone To Soldiers, when her Jewish characters leave Europe for Israel:


……of one set of problems is the beginning of another.

June 31st Update:

Yesterday I went to Office Maxx and purchased (for a whopping 40 bucks!) a hard plastic mat to put under the wheels of my chair. On the bus ride home a bizaare event occurred: a woman asked me where I got it, and told me why she needed one, and I told her my reason, ending with “My neighbor better not complain after I spent $40 on this thing.” Suddenly a voice somewhere nearby said, “And that neighbor is ME!” I looked up abruptly, and there she was, on the bus: #109. Can you believe she “caught” me talking about her? And then she just walked on to the back of the bus.

Meanwhile, this stupid mat slips around on the floor. I’ll probably kill myself on it.

Gotta Move!

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Gotta move!
Got to get out.
Gotta leave this place
Gotta find some place–
some other place
some brand new place
some place where each face
that I see won’t be starin’
back at me tellin’ me what to be
and how to be it…

This song, belted out by Barbra Streisand on her second album, has accompanied me on upwards of 25 moves in a lifetime of searching for the elusive perfect domicile (one friend calls them “lateral moves”). I long ago learned that you take yourself wherever you go, yet even this painful lesson did not entirely abolish my need to keep moving. It did slow me down: I stayed in my last apartment nearly six years, a record – and I hated that place more than anywhere I’d previously lived. In fact, it’s probably the only apartment to ever defeat me: I have a facility with prettying up places, no matter how dumpy they are to begin with. My last apartment, though, must’ve seen so much misery it was embedded in the shit-colored industrial carpeting and clung to stained kitchen counters that, no matter how much bleach I used, were never entirely clean. Gotta Move has been running around my head for years.

The new place is bright and airy, with hardwood floors and spotless, shiny kitchen tiles, and the rent is actually less than the abovementioned hellhole. Of course, I’m slowly discovering this one’s drawbacks, primarily the busy street life below my second-story window. We’ve got kids who play outside until dark, roller skaters, basketball hoopsters. We’ve got men working on their cars, and a couple of motorcycles that come and go with booming regularity.  And we’ve got a dog who is not long for this world if I have any say in the matter. I just keep telling myself I’ve moved to a more urban environment, that I’ll get used to it.


Even if I hadn’t hated my last apartment, I would have moved. I get restless and bored, and moving is a chance for the adventures I’m not rich enough to finance through travel. Plus, given that both my profession and my personality keep me home most of the time, I burn out on my living quarters pretty fast.

Even when I was raising my kids I moved around a lot, for which I carry a hefty load of motherguilt. Once, sitting with Stacy on the back of a U-Haul on West 72nd Street in New York, waiting for my boyfriend Kenny and the moving man to bring down more furniture, Stacy suddenly announced, with four-year-old conviction, “I can’t wait till I grow up so I don’t have to live with nobody!” Still breaks my heart.

Then again, I honestly believed it was good for kids to have new experiences, to discover new ways of living and different kinds of places to live. Now that the chips are in, I can’t say I was right or wrong; all I know is, I’m a nomad, a runner, a girl who needs change on a regular basis or I stagnate. Maybe I just made up that child-rearing theory to accommodate my own desires.

In the midst of the move I turned 64, that magical iconic age when I’m supposed to “knit a sweater by the fireside/Sunday mornings go for a ride.” Instead, I was schlepping possessions from one place to another, wishing I had none, handing stuff off to anyone who’d take it (I gave away over 100 books this move, and a gigantic bookcase. So guess what? I still have too many books and now I need another bookcase to accommodate them.)

The older I get the harder it is to move, and a week later I’m still totally exhausted. I wonder about the women my age who have such busy productive lives, for instance, Hilary. Where does she get the energy to jet around the world meeting with heads of state and deciding the fate of the little people of the world? How does she keep up with everything she has to do for her job? I get tired when I go out to dinner. How does Ruth Bader Ginsburg dole out justice all day every day? I cannot imagine how these ladies do it. They put me to shame.

Not that I know what Hilary’s up to these days; I was disconnected from the Internet for a week, and too involved in stuff like where to put my unwanted, unneeded stereo. The one current event I couldn’t avoid, of course, was passage of the health care bill, about which there is just too much to say. Dennis Kucinich was a surprise – he’s a far better sport than I, and was probably right to cave in and vote for a bill that might benefit insurance companies more than people. He did it for the broader cause. What a guy.

But enough about the world. My adventures consume me.

Comcast pulled a fast one; I’m furious. Fed up with their outrageous fees and rip-off policies, I downgraded to Basic awhile ago. When, a few months later, I bought a flat-screen television, I discovered it was so powerful, it pulled in stations from distant planets. I had just enough time, before the move, to get addicted to Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker. When Cable Guy came to hook me up at the new place, he swore he wouldn’t report my freebie service — but two days later all I got, after the basic drek, was a darkened screen and the words “Scrambled Video.”

Why is this okay? Why is it okay for Comcast to scramble signals that my high-powered TV set picks up? I’m serious. Does Comcast own the airways? I always thought they were in the public domain. This is seriously fucked, and I’m wondering if there’s anything to be done about it. If anyone has a clue, please, please let me know.

No Comment Department:

Finally: While I was preoccupied, two new laws were enacted in the great state of California. You’ll be glad to know that from here on in you’re allowed to tote a gun anywhere you like within the public parks system – but don’t you dare light up a deadly cigarette.

Smoking Guns Only


Head, Heart, Yada Yada Yada

I once had a therapist who told me, “You don’t need me to help you learn how to feel, you need me to help you learn how to think.”

It was a revelatory proclamation, and it brings a renewed sense of revelation every time I remember it—and this was some 30 years ago. That’s the way truth is.

My family was always criticizing me for being “too sensitive.” (I would now ask, “Too sensitive for what?”). I was made to feel ashamed of my frequently expressed emotions, and, like most children, I stifled them as much as I could. But even with the stifling, I was/am more emotionally open than the average person. A few years ago I read The Highly Sensitive Person, a book that went a long way towards explaining me to myself. I made my mother and my sister read it—which, of course, only resulted in more teasing. They don’t really bug me so much anymore, though: having lived through the therapy era when I got kudos for emotional depth, I’ve learned to appreciate the quality. Even now, I’m far more comfortable talking about my emotional IQ rather than my thinking capabilities–and it’s the latter I’d intended to address here.

Just because a light bulb is lit doesn’t mean we suddenly see clearly. When my therapist pulled that particular switch, she illuminated something about me, but the bulb was only around 40 watts. At this point I’ve worked it up to maybe 70 – still not high enough. This isn’t easy to admit, but the screwups in my life have come about precisely because I don’t know how to think. Oh, sure, I can connect the dots of sociological influences, or put theoretical ideas into comprehensive sentences, and do a lot of other fancy tricks. My deficiency is in the area of common sense, street smarts, knowing how to maneuver my way through this world so as to get what I want. My therapist saw, and so did I in that moment, that faulty thinking, or perhaps no thinking at all, repeatedly led me into circumstances that put my life out of control. Since then, even though I’ve been aware of it and tried to change, I’ve continued to make decisions that get me into deep shit. Occasionally I’ve managed to think things through and “do the right thing,” but not nearly enough of the time, certainly not enough to make my life come out closer to what I want.

Social forces are part of the story. If there’s one thing I can point to as having affected the way all this operated for me, it’s the Sixties, with its emphasis on feelings and rejection of logic. I was at the age when most people lay a foundation for the rest of their lives, in terms of work, finances, geography, relationships—you name it. The atmosphere of the times encouraged an emphasis on the heart over the head, so I was frequently applauded for what I now see as emotional indulgence. At an orientation session for Re-evaluation Counseling, a man came up to me afterwards to express his admiration for my great skill at crying. And where did all that crying get me? I spent far too much time “exploring my feelings” at the expense of building a decent life for me and my kids.

Emotional expression isn’t a skill. Thinking, on the other hand, though it seems to come naturally to some, takes a little work. And the ability to think logically is so much more useful than a propensity for spontaneous emotional combustion.

Take today, for instance. My brand new 32” flat screen television is sitting in its box, having arrived via UPS yesterday. I’ve been hitting myself over the head ever since I bought it online rather than at the store–they would’ve hooked it up for me, but UPS was cheaper.  See what I mean? Shoddy thinking.

Gingerly I opened the box and took out the first thing I saw on top, a plastic bag full of wires. I immediately put them aside and walked away. I suppose I’ll eventually attempt to hook this thing up to my cable and DVD – but I’m dreading it, and am mentally preparing myself to pay Best Buy’s Geek Squad to come over anyway.

That’s what started me on this whole train of thought. Now, I could go into a therapy session and talk for hours about the reasons that I as a woman approach this task with terror. I know the issues backwards and forwards, know precisely at which points I will cry and at which points I’ll get mad. In the end, I still won’t be able to do the damn job. How do I know this? Because I’ve been doing it for over 40 years. It’s gettin’ old.

Now that I’ve thoroughly humiliated myself with this public confession,  maybe I’ll do better this time. Hah! Who am I kidding? I should probably just skip the whole boring drama and call the Geek Squad.